The Day of the Heroes

After the Holland Tunnel heading north from the City, the cheap chartered bus pulled into the Golden Apple. It’s tires grumbled on gravel in the parking lot like a drunken bar singer rubbing his stubble with a microphone. The Youth Division’s annual winter day trip took a pit stop.

In the back of the bus, Joey the Joke yelled at his friends: ‘Who’s got the cowboy killers?’

‘Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, Joey. Buy your own cigarettes, you sneaky shit. You’ve already sucked down half the Jungle Juice since the City,’ said Burmylo.

Burmylo meant “bear” in the language of their parents and grandparents. The nickname was his since he was six. He had always been bigger and shaggier than the other boys. Burmylo lifted up his drab olive parka with the fake fur fringes. He jammed the Jungle Juice, a sweaty goatskin bag filled with vodka, NyQuil and grape Kool-Aid, into his waistline. They’d been drinking since seven o’clock in the morning. The bag’s little red plastic nozzle stuck out from the band of his white Fruit of the Looms.

The bus came to a full stop with a hydraulic wheeze, and the senior adults and little kids got up to file into the truck stop complex. Ptaha – it meant “birdy” – found a bunch of Dorito wrappers on the floor, scrunched them up into a ball, and threw it just past the slicked-back, ‘50s style head of the Youth Division’s senior counsellor, Mr Serhiy, who the boys preferred to call Slick Head.

Ptaha was small and ducked down below the seats to hide. It was less than 25 degrees outside, but he was wearing his usual prized black-and-red striped Adidas tracksuit pants and some no-name basketball sneakers from Orchard Street. Drunkenly, he licked orange chip crumbs from his palm.

‘I see you, Ptaha, you miniscule moron,’ Slick Head said in the ancestral language. ‘Everyone off the bus. You have exactly forty minutes to go to the toilet and get a snack. We have to get to the Property for roll call.’

Mr Yaroshenko, an unmarried man in his mid-fifties, who helped maintain the Front’s Property near the shit town in the Catskills, had noticed the boys goofing around with Slick Head. He calmly stepped back a few rows toward their group of boys and said: ‘Come on, lads. Time to march.’

The four of them glanced at each other and put on their sober faces to get off the bus. Joey pulled his green Jets beanie further down, maybe to cover the fading purple bruise near his right eye that he’d had for the last couple of weeks.

For whatever reason, they didn’t fuck around with “Mr Y” or whatever his original name was. Like all the ex-partisans, Mr Y had changed his name to sneak himself into the US on one of the ex-troop ships that also brought their “Displaced Person” peasant parents. He was the real deal still from the war.

Summers, on days when the humid heat was hovering in the valley, Mr Y’s head would be covered with a white handkerchief with the four corners tied down.

He spent the afternoons working with a long super-sharp scythe and whetting stone to cut the tall grass around the Property’s sports field. He moved steadily, adding one half-circle of mown grass after another until the paddocks were clear.

Lou remembered one time during swim time at summer camp, looking downstream and away from everybody splashing around at the Property’s shallow rocky creek. He saw Mr Y in his white singlet, pants rolled up to the knees and standing still with his eyes closed. Lou noticed the swollen bullet scars across Mr Y’s upper back shoulder and on both sides of his left bicep. Like melted candle wax on the embroidered tablecloth at Christmas, Lou thought to himself.

Lou’s real name was “Lubomyr” and it meant lover of peace. Another dumb decision by his refugee parents, Lou had thought. Peace wasn’t something there was a lot of around them. It was like they were ignoring what they could see from the window of their fifth floor tenement walk-up.  The “Die Yuppie Scum” graffiti on the wall of the abandoned synagogue. The speed freak punks with torn zits and studded leather jackets fighting it out in Tompkins Square Park with the fat, moustachioed cops from the 9th Police Precinct.  Broken Colt45 bottles versus NYPD batons and riot squad horses.

So, he stuck with Lou because it was more American and he stuck with his neighbourhood friends no matter how stupid they were or how stupid they did. He stuck to the Rangers, Nathan’s Hot Dogs and Chiller horror movies on Channel 11. In early spring times, he stuck to sitting on the stoops of the fancy brownstones a few blocks north of the neighbourhood, where their mothers didn’t walk past, and where they drank cheap vodka from plastic pint bottles. The booze was bought for them by their older, sad ex-Vietnam cousins ‘for a fee, dude’ because they were all underaged.

In June, before being sent to camp for the rest of the summer, Lou stuck to ‘tar beach’ on the roof of his building and watched the sun reflect off the Twin Towers at dusk.

These virtues were his. He could not see nor touch nor taste them. They weren’t the Front Youth Division’s rules about bravery and sacrifice and revenge. They weren’t from the sorrowful saints painted on their Church’s ornate ceiling or the Liturgies in the obscure version of his parents’ language that not even the priests understood. They weren’t about that other country that he and his American-born friends had never seen. The country that wasn’t even in National Geographic atlases, but he was told to think about all the time.

According to Slick Head, who was born after the war in the DP camp at the bottom of the mountain of Hitler’s “Eagles Nest”, the Front held that they should even be ready to give their lives for that place of the imagination. Lou didn’t buy it. Lou believed in pick and stick with what was in front of him.

From their bus and the other one in their group, little kids and a few straight-laced crowd, college-aged counsellors filed through the big plate glass door of the Golden Apple’s entryway. It was filled with steaming parkas, scarves and galoshes like flopping fish on a boat’s deck. Lou and his boys peeled off when Slick Head wasn’t looking. Lou knew that Slick Head never really looked. The truth was they could do whatever the fuck they wanted to do, but it felt better to pretend that Slick Head and the other bosses somehow gave two shits.

They walked to the back of the truck stop near the dumpsters and used cooking oil drums. The ground was covered in four inches of snow that was crusted with spoiled French fries, rotten cabbage, a half-eaten cherry pie, and other strewn garbage. Goop leaked from the bottom of the steel drums and made a black streak through the frozen muck.

Burmylo pulled the homemade Coke-bottle-and-rubber-hose bong out of one of the deep pockets inside his parka. He was like a one-man, 8th Street head shop; he always had some kind of substance and paraphernalia to get stoned with him. The bong was pre-loaded. Joey hit it with his green Bic lighter, which was set to full blast like a flame thrower, and started passing it around. From Burmylo to Lou to Joey to Ptaha. Size order. It was all done without having to talk. Every player on the team knew his position and they had practiced many times.

Lou sucked hard. He closed his eyes and held the dope deep in his lungs as long as he could. He leant back and blew the smoke out toward the slate sky. They passed the Jungle Juice the opposite way, holding the goatskin up over their heads, and shooting streams of booze into their own mouths.

‘Good “konopols”, Bearski,’ Joey said about the dope. He liked to mangle the old language even though he spoke it better than there rest of them. ‘Come on. I’m fucking starving. Zyiv bu horsemeat.’

They passed the bong for another round while stamping their feet and kicking aside slush.

When the bong’s last gurgle was gone, Burmylo stowed the gear. They made their way inside. They didn’t take their coats off – or in Ptaha’s case his “Virginia is for Lovers” sweatshirt – and went straight into the food buffet line. The buffet was separated like a bullpen from the cheaply wood-panelled dining area by a stainless-steel barrier. Once you were in, you had to go past the cash register at the end.

Lou’s head was spinning like an acrobat hanging from a rope at Ringling Bros circus. That was no biggie – he was used to it. Then, he noticed the RPMs clicking over quicker than usual with just regular dope and liquor. And, there were blobs of blue in his vision, and flashes of light when he turned his head. Like a movie reel melting on a projector. To slow down, he carefully got a steel meal tray and a ceramic bowl that had the Red Apple crest on it. The tray and the bowl felt super-heavy to him, like anchors, and it was good to steady himself.

But as soon as he reached for a soup spoon to put in the back pocket of his jeans, the spin cycle started again. Hectic. The neon Schlitz Beer sign stretched out as long as the whole dining room. The black-and-white linoleum flooring bounced up and down like a chessboard in an earthquake movie.

‘Paraquat’, he thought, realising that the dope was laced. ‘Fucking Burmylo’. Lou knew then that he was at the “moment”; realising that he was totally fucked up before proceeding to being totally fucked up without any realisations. Struggle or surrender.

Burmylo was piling three slices of meatloaf and mashed potatoes on his plate and drowning the pile in baby-shit gravy. Ptaha pocketed the free Saltine crackers; he mostly didn’t have money and sometimes relied on “loans” from teachers at school who liked him because he was clever when he was sober. Joey took a metal ladle from a big soup-serving container and poured cream-of-mushroom into their bowls. It was like watching cement pour on one of Lou’s father’s construction jobs when he sometimes visited the old man on Saturday afternoons after the Front’s language school. Joey was laughing and talking at him as usual, but Lou could only make out random words.

It was like when they were up at the Property on a late summer night and could sometimes catch the static-filled signal of a college radio station from Poughkeepsie. It played Bad Co, Meatloaf, Boston, old Stones – their songs would cut in and out as the radio waves swelled and slumped.

Joey put an arm around Lou and pulled him in. Lou noticed Mr Y sitting by himself by the long window that looked out on the parking lot, filled with dirt-splashed buses and rusty Chevy pick up’s. He had a thick mug of steaming coffee and a New York Times was covering half of the lime-green Formica table in front of him.

‘Dude, when we get to the lady, put your money on the counter and start to ask her about the ashtrays and shit she’s selling, capisce?’ Joey said.

They slid their trays up the smooth metal bars past the dessert servery. It had lemon meringues, which were taller than the caps of the truckers who bought them, and apple pies with American cheese slices melted on them.

Joey could bullshit anyone and could spiel anything. It helped Joey put space and time between himself and the war his asshole father continued to fight with his fists on his kids. The prick mostly sat with the venetian blinds down in their apartment in the Projects and watched “The World at War” while ashing his Marlboro’s into a rock glass topped up with Seagram’s 7. He’d only leave to get another bottle or, when he was sober enough, to occasionally push a broom through bloody sawdust at the meat market owned by another Front guy.

Now, the Joke was on. Joey flipped his switch and instantly became as sweet as Paul Newman in his favorite movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. He smiled at the girl behind the cash register. The engraved white letters on her black melamine name tag said she was Darcy. Darcy’s pink-framed glasses rested on the top of her dairy farmer’s daughter’s cheeks.

‘Thank you very much, Darcy. Your hospitality is most appreciated. My colleague here will be paying for our nourishment,’ Joey said as he edged his tray to the just past the cash register. Burmylo, as big as some carved President at Rushmore, waited ahead of them with his packed tray, and Ptaha was trying to juggle his Saltines.

Behind Darcy, there were shelves with Golden Apple souvenirs: glass ashtrays, metal key rings, and maple syrup cookies. The glass display case the cash register sat on had the more expensive items. Like the eight inch Bowie replica knife with a tooled antler handle.

Lou wobbled and stuck his hand in his parka pocket. He pulled out a ball of crumbled bills and held them in his palm as he pointed with his middle finger.

‘Yeah. Yeah, I’m paying. Hey. Hey, that lighter is cool. Yeah, that one all the way at the top. How much is that?’

As Darcy turned to reach up to the top shelf and check the Zippo’s price tag, Joey slipped his ski-gloved hand behind the counter, lifted the silver blade and slipped it into the sleeve of his bubble parka. The parka and gloves made him look like The Michelin Man, Lou thought, as he watched the heist in his blurred peripheral vision.

‘Twenty bucks? Nah. Next time, Darcy. But thanks for looking for me.’

She sorted through the crushed five dollar notes Lou had put on the counter, and gave him back some crisp singles and shiny quarters.

They found a booth as far as possible from the rest of the Youth Division. A puddle started to form under the table as snow and slush melted off Burmylo’s Doc Marten’s. They were near the toilets to take turns going to the cubicles to slug the Jungle Juice and take hits off a little vial of Rush amyl. Oxygen was optional.

The Joke spun his chair around backwards and sat down with his legs spread wide. It was like he needed to be in his own movie all the time. He took some of Lou’s quarters and punched D3 for “Layla” by Eric Clapton into the small jukebox machine on the table.

‘Stick with me boys and you’ll go places,’ Joey said. Now, Joey was the star.

‘Lemme see, homey,’ Ptaha said and started to frisk Joey’s sleeve. He was slurring. Burmylo knocked his hand away.

‘Your brain is smaller than your dick, Bird Boy. You touch it – you pay for it. Leave it for later. Eat your fucking crackers, Polly.’

‘Fuck you, fuckface. Who the fuck made you Ed Koch,’ said Ptaha as he struggled to rip the plastic film off his Saltines.

Without telling anybody, when Ptaha was two in ‘66, his dad had walked into the Commies’ uptown consulate and pissed off back to the other side. So, the bosses thought that maybe Ptaha was a Commie too. Or at least that’s what they put out there. Lou thought it was to keep Ptaha on edge and willing to do stupid things to prove he wasn’t. He was an easy mark for them.

‘Give this piece of shit some booze and ganja, and he gets outta his place. Be fucking careful, Ptaha, with what you say next,’ Joey said. The Joke was over.

Lou had been following the trajectory of his spoon from his back pocket to the cement-like soup to his mouth, but tone was his territory and he tuned back in.

‘Leave it, you doofuses, okay? You’re both wrong whatever it is you’re arguing about. Trying to line my stomach here,’ he said.

All the mind-bending shit in their systems was like a rubber band. It drew them together, but it also went brittle and broke when pulled too far. A different word here or more tension in the voice there, and they went from blood brothers to blood.

Like the time Burmylo had smashed Joey’s shin with a pool cue at O’Connell’s Bar & Grill. Smashed it so bad it needed stitches. After five boilermakers, the Joke had somehow missed a sitting eight-ball in the corner pocket. It cost them two hundred Simoleons to some spics from Avenue C. Then, all of them in the back of a Yellow Cab on the way to Bellevue emergency – still throwing punches at each other and still laughing.

Back on the bus after the Golden Apple, the boys fell asleep with heads on each other’s shoulders. Burmylo snored. They woke up a couple of hours later at the Property.

The Front had bought the Property from Jews when the Jews started leaving the Catskills for Miami Beach. Slick Head undid the Yale lock on the chain link fence to let the two buses through. Each bus slipped and slid up the unploughed hill and the little kids yelped like happy puppies when their’s fishtailed. Cheap thrills for kids who lived in one-bedroom city apartments with bathtubs in their kitchens. Lou and his boys were too studied and still too stoned to stir.

During the winter, the Property was the turn-the-water-off-so-the-pipes-don’t-freeze-and-crack domain of only the resident caretaker. He was another ex-partisan with another made-up name that needed to be somehow stored away by the Front from civilisation and his own nightmares. It hibernated and waited for the summer camps. From July 4th to Labor Day, Front kids all lived in the Property’s barracks with broken toilets and old leaky Army tents. Their parents took the chance to work longer factory shifts and play gin rummy in hot urban kitchens.

From age six for every summer, they marched to their meals in columns for the cause. There wore grey uniforms to morning and evening roll-calls where Slick Head and the other Bosses. They heard speeches about the slogan of the day – “Death to the Occupant” or “No One Shall Tarnish Our Honour” or “No Danger is An Obstacle for the Cause”. They saluted flags and learned to reverently raise, lower and fold them. A triangle for the American; a rectangle for “ours”. They memorised Front songs of battle and resistance, and were told that in the Home Country they would be shot by the Evil Occupant for singing them. They were told what to love and who to hate. They were told to be careful of the insects; Slick Head said they could be the Evil Occupant’s ingenious, microphone-equipped spy bugs. They picked weeds and cigarette butts for breaking the “no English” rule. They got poison ivy from night-time raiding parties, stealing towels and inflatable pool rings from the neighbouring Jewish bungalow colony. Before all meals and on Sundays, they crossed themselves in the reverse way of their faith, prayed, and were blessed in the knowledge that the Front was right. At sixteen, the chosen “best” of them swore their willingness to live and die for the Front with oaths upon a .45 Colt automatic and a Bible in Cyrillic letters some of them struggled to read.

And, away from the bosses and their world of words and rules, with a sunny sledge of Shawangunk mountain above them, they ran fast on a sports field that seemed bigger than their entire neighbourhoods. They ate tender pork meatballs with creamy mushroom sauce made by the ladies, some of their own grandmothers, who volunteered in the kitchen. The same women who quietly chatted to each other while drawing threads of black and red through off-white hemp cloth to make the precise embroidered patterns of culture and tradition. They bought lemon Italian ices at the “candy store” that opened up for an hour during their nightly “free time”. They caught fireflies in their cupped palms near the shop’s kerosene lamp. They threw giggling girls in the creek that the men unsuccessfully tried to dam each year. The same girls who blew the fuses with their smuggled-in blow dryers getting ready for clandestine kisses at the Saturday night dance.

They learned to do the furious steps and scissor kicks, and leap the soaring leaps, of their badass horseback ancestors who never took shit from anyone on the ceaseless steppe. They called themselves “the Banda Boys” or the bandits – Lou and his New York City guys – and acted as badass as they could to impress the ‘rich kids’ from Jersey or Yonkers.

They wrapped chains around fallen logs in the forest on the Property and dragged them into bonfire stacks bigger than semi-trucks. They’d sweat hard as they worked and shared water taken from the clear, cold spring down by the creek, stored in tall Genesee brown beer bottles. They held hands in a big circle around the light and heat of the huge weekly blaze – the boys and girls of all ages, from all branches. Teenage junior counsellors flirted with each other and the Front bosses didn’t give speeches for a change. The visiting proud parents, the babushkas from the kitchen, and the camp followers like Mr Y sang softer songs of solace and sacrifice. They watched orange embers swirl to the stars. They squeezed the hand of the person next to them and passed an imaginary ember around the circle to say good and peaceful night.

When he was little, Lou wondered why he could see stars up at the Property, but there were never any to be seen from the roof of his building in the City.

Now, there were no stars either. When they arrived at the Property, they got out to stand rank-and-file, size-order, half-asleep, half-wasted. Just a cold-ass February late morning, a sky as grey as a used sheet in a morgue, the leafless skeletons of the trees on the mountainside, and the monument with the bronze bust statues of the Heroes of the Front.

The hand-held megaphone squelched as Slick Head turned it on. He’d taken off his woollen trench coat so everybody could see he was wearing his fucking uniform. His gut hung over and hid the tin badge Front insignia on his belt buckle.

Then, Slick Head rolled out the formula of the Front: roll-call reports and salutes from the different age groups, flag raising, national anthem, acknowledgement of overlords in the Front, the Church, and the Property’s admin committee; the ‘ground-and-pound’ about how everybody had to try harder to be like the Heroes.

How the Heroes and their partisan faithful had ambushed Nazi and Soviet supply columns with just hand grenades. How they’d eaten rats in hidden bunkers. How the bunkers had even been copied by the Vietcong. How the Heroes had sat in prisons. How they had fallen from the bullets of the Evil Occupant’s assassins. How their non-combatant loved ones had been tortured and exiled to Arctic places frozen off maps.

None of it was bullshit, Lou knew. He’d spent time after school at the public library up by the Museum of Modern Art where he spooled through micro-fiche articles about the Heroes. The articles he found weren’t written by the Front for the Front, so they seemed ‘truer’. A truth of fighting against a crueller and unjust but stronger enemy.

And, that truth was good when all around Lou were junkies’ broken needles, dog shit piles, tenement staircases sagging from the slumped strides of generations of tired migrants, and hotted-up Monte Carlo’s with Jersey plates and Guido’s buying spare nickel bags outside the 9th Street bodega on Friday nights. Pretty neighbourhood girls with Macy’s part-time jobs who wanted nothing to do with the neighbourhood and nothing to do with you.

The Heroes had a code and Lou saw how a code mattered. But what he couldn’t connect was how eating a Union Square subway rat led to freedom.

‘Deep,’ Ptaha said with sarcasm behind Lou, and pushed his foot into the back of Joey’s knee so he almost stumbled over.

Ptaha wise-assed a lot, but he was always the first to ask the Front bosses for “assignments”. Like burning the trash cans outside the Commie Consulate where his dad had deserted and disappeared. Or, slashing the tires on their diplomatic staff’s illegally-parked Fords. He wanted to be a made-man in the Front, so he would riff about black ops in the borderlands he’d do when he was older if, he said, ‘the bosses grew some balls like the old days’.

‘Somebody is gonna be in a world of hurt. Shit’s gonna get real real fast, dipshit,’ Joey said out of the side of his mouth. His fingers cupped at the bottom of his jacket and took the weight of the hidden Bowie.

‘Wassamatta, Joey? Think your brave daddy should be up there? Have his own fucking hero head too? For whaling on you and teaching you to be a warrior?’

Ptaha knew Joey hated his father and the beatings he copped from him. Burmylo thumped his fist into Ptaha’s small chest. Slick Head, in full flight about the day’s slogan, “Nation of Heroes – Nation Unshackled”, shot the senior counsellors a look to go over and shut the Banda Boys up.

At the periphery of the roll-call, Lou saw Mr Y standing very still with his leather-gloved hands folded in front of him. Steam came through the dark green woollen scarf he had wrapped around his nose and mouth. Like at the creek in summer, Mr Y’s were shut through all of Slick Head’s speech. When they started to sing “Praise to the Partisan” to close the ceremony, Mr Y opened his eyes, turned to face the marble cross at the crest of the monument, and took the attention position.

It made Lou wonder why Slick Head and the other bosses never spoke of any ex-partisans like Mr Y who were present during the speeches or roll-calls. It was as if the ex’s were ghosts that everybody could see but ignored.  Useful for the Front’s story, but not to be stirred up. Lou didn’t know if it was out of respect or intimidation or arrogance. And, in the Front, you could ask but mostly you didn’t.

‘Dismissed,’ Slick Head yelled, and the eighty three of them in ranks yelled back ‘Nation of Heroes – Nation Unshackled’.

‘Counsellors, activities in the main hall for younger children and then snow time. Banda Boys, off to the kitchen. You will help the comrade ladies get the food ready,’ he added.

The little kids laughed and pointed: ‘Banda Boys! Banda Boys! To the kitchen!’

The Banda Boys took their time getting to the kitchen. Their route went behind the Orthodox chapel and laundry and summer camp complex. They made stops to get more wasted. Another bong hit. More slugs off the goatskin. Smoked Burmylo’s Parliaments. Sucked on beer ice from a couple of frozen green bottles Heinekens they’d hid behind their barracks that past summer.

Ptaha did a bird song about how ‘the Heroes were the dudes and now all these Slick Heads and shit, they ain’t shit. We gotta get back to the real deal.’ He was whipping around like a plastic bag in the dirty wind of a back alley.

Joey said nothing and seethed, all the drugs drilling his brain hollow and dark. Lou knew Joey actually agreed with Ptaha, but for Joey to agree now would be to give up the hatred half of him relied on. Rather, he was waiting for his moment to star again and come back into spotlight. To get even.

Burmylo checked supplies and told them to ‘ease up for the trip back.’ He’d once told Lou that Ptaha, Joey and him were all ‘fucking pussies’, and he meant it. His mother was Canarsie Sicilian and her brother had an umbrella and suitcase shop on Rivington Street. Through his uncle, the wise guys in the Italian social clubs on Mott Street knew Burmylo. Through the wise guys, he’d acquired had a juvenile sheet for more than spraying Front slogans on NYU campus walls. The Bear was half out before he ever got in. Lucky fuck, Lou usually thought, but right now he had a massive case of munchies.

‘Come on. We should get to the kitchen. Grab some bulkas,’ Lou said about the freshly baked bread rolls the voluntary ladies’ crew would make. Each roll was bigger than Lou’s open palm. It would be a shiny brown on top where it had been brushed with egg, and when pulled open, there was steamy warm white. Lou imagined it was as soft as a fancy pillow at some place like the Waldorf Astoria. He loved how awesome the rolls were when dipped in the super-cold USDA milk that came in the big plastic bladders like cows’ udders. The government gave free milk to camps like the Front’s because apparently Lou and his friends were poor on some form.

Ptaha was grabbing Joey’s ass and yelling about ‘nice bulkas, baby’. Joey said nothing.

They rumbled in to the industrial-sized kitchen. The cold from the open door covered their soiled smell of smokes and booze.

The ladies had come up the night before, six of them packed into a green Plymouth Fury with a black vinyl top, to get the food ready. They had their hair up, covered by floral patterned scarves, and were at the long metal preparation tables. They were rolling dough into gummy strings to cut into roll-size pieces.

The head lady was using a butcher’s knife to chop a metal strainer full of peeled onions; there was a triangular mound in front of her. Tears ran down past her bifocaled glasses and she hummed the melody of a song about a young girl with long dark braids who longs for her partisan lover. Other ladies added the chorus. Behind the ladies was a large-scale oven as solid as a piece of artillery.

The oven reminded Lou of his dead grandmother’s story about the winter kitchen of their family farm in the Carpathian Mountains. Lou’s grandmother described the oven there. It was made of clay bricks and white-washed, and patterned with blue stencils of poultry, cattle and wheat stalks. The oven was fired by timber from the forest at the fringe of the farm.  During cold nights, you could sleep on top of the oven as coals slowly cooked beet root soup in a large ceramic pot underneath.

At a smaller table to the side, other ladies were taking a break with cups of black coffee and looking through a copy of the Front’s official weekly newspaper, “Shining Path of Victory”. On the front page, there was a photo of the Soviet Central Committee on display at some stupid parade. The headline said ‘Imperialist Criminals’ and the article featured an analysis of powerbrokers based on the position of standing in the line-up and the kind of hat worn.

Mr Y was at a sink across from them, with his sleeves rolled up. Steam rose from the hot water and it fogged up the wooden-framed window near him. He was finishing up scrubbing large cast iron pots. Their dark black flecked with silver and white was like his hair.

No one really said for sure, but Lou’s grandmother thought that before the war Mr Y had been studying abroad for a Doctorate in something like archaeology or the origin of language or something else obscure. She really wasn’t sure of the subject, but knew it was impressive. Now, he fixed watch-making machinery at the Bulova watch factory out in Queens. Since ’47 when a couple of the partisan battalions escaped to the West, Mr Y’s family in the old country could never hear from him again. They were ghosts to those mothers, wives and siblings too.

Onion Lady kept chopping while she directed the Banda Boys this way and that, ‘take these trays; those tin pitchers; four bladders of the milk; don’t forget the napkins’.

Trying to walk straight on the worn wooden slats of the kitchen floor, the boys started ferrying things to the chilly dining hall. Burmylo filled his pockets with half-a-dozen rolls on the way. The little kids and counsellors came in from the snow where they’d been playing Johnny-on-the-Pony, Ringolevio and pile-on’s, or sliding down the icy shady side of the monument on pieces of cardboard beer cases. When they’d carried the last of the rolls and stuff out, Lou went back to the kitchen to let the ladies know they were done.

Mr Y was wiping his arms dry with a schmata. Mr Y was smiling and Lou hadn’t seen that before. Maybe, it was the company of the women and the stories they wove as they worked.

‘And how are things with you, young Kohut, and with your parents?’, he asked Lou.

Lou knew right then that the whole kitchen was watching him. And, he knew that the ladies knew that he was smashed. But the point was to try and keep it together and tidy. It was the effort and the appearance – the ritual of respect – that mattered as much as anything.

He noticed the small and smudgy blue-green tattoo on Onion Lady’s forearm; the numbers that the Nazis at Ravensbruck had put on her. He sucked in and squeezed his hands in his parka pockets to steady himself.

‘Very well, thank you, Mr Yaroshenko. They would want me to wish you and the honourable ladies here good health,’ Lou said being careful with the language’s tricky tenses and formal pronouns.

‘Oh, how nice. That’s a well-mannered lad. There’s hope for this one,’ Onion Lady said.

‘Possibly. Possibly, ladies. Lubomyr is the smart one. He may not listen to the speeches, but I know he goes to the library and he reads. But is he smart enough to know the key thing, ladies, do you think?’

‘What’s that, Comrade Yaroshenko?’

‘That very little is very important. That most of life is nonsense and noise. But from time to time, there comes a word or an action that matters when we meet it. That one moment can be enough,’ Mr Y said.

Lou knew not to say anything, as Mr Y sized him up. That was useful because he had no idea what Mr Y meant or what he should say. He kept his eyes down and nodded, thanked them for the rolls, and excused himself to go back to the dining hall.

The other Banda Boys had gone outside again, Lou saw. They’d pushed snow off a timber picnic table and were stuffing their faces with rolls. Joey had the stolen knife from the Golden Apple out. He had a gloved hand on the table top; the glove was off the other hand. He was stabbing the knife up-and-down between his own spread-out fingers. The game was called bishop or stabberscotch or the five-finger fillet, depending on what street in the neighbourhood you were on and whether it was spics, or blacks, or Polacks you were mixing with. Lou saw Ptaha gesturing that Joey needed to take off the glove for it to count. Joey still said nothing and bounced the blade faster.

Lou had had enough shit in his body so he grabbed some rolls, poured a long glass of milk, and sat down at a table with the ten and eleven year old girls’ group. They had each nibbled a roll, but set them aside now. Two of them were playing Cat’s Cradle with yellow yarn as the others leaned forward on pointy elbows to watch.

Lou’s little cousin, Kalyna, jumped on his back. He could feel her skinny forearm on his Adam’s apple. He noticed that his Aunt Iryna had given her special braids with blue ribbons for the day so her hair could fit under wool hat.

‘Lubchyk!,’ she screamed.

‘How are all my girlfriends,’ he asked knowing it’d made them laugh and jump around, as happy as the popcorn maker on movie nights in the same hall during summer camp. The girls fell into strong denials of their girlfriend status and started pointing at the older girls’ group – the fourteen to sixteen year olds – and discussing Lou’s prospects.

‘Oi, lover boy, let’s roll,’ Burmylo called. ‘We’re going to the creek.’

The creek was where the Property divided the organized from the disorganized. The former, starting from the highway entrance, was where the Front had built the Youth Division barracks, the halls, the sports field, the beer garden, the chapel, the toilet blocks, and the monument. The boundaries of their beliefs and behaviors.

Across the creek, the back half of the Property was undeveloped. Hidden stands of hemlocks and beeches, and then pines and blueberry bushes, and then granite bluff the higher you climbed up the mountainside. The stacked stone wall that some claimed separated the Dutch and the Iroquois. A mossy ditch with overgrown flat tracks carved on both its sides; the remains of the old canal where barges of brown Pennsylvania coal had been pulled by steeds to the 19th century steam furnaces of Hudson Valley forges.

During camp, Lou would sometimes sneak away from the daily program and follow the rocky path up the bluff to a clearing carved out near the top. There, he’d watch happy hippies with hang-gliders run up to a raised wooden platform and leap off. Their rainbow-colored crafts of wire and textile soared and circled on the bluff’s hot up-draughts. After a day of flying, they packed up and returned to the parking lot nearby. With the sliding doors of their VW Combi vans open to the view of the valley, they’d share meals of beans and instant noodles cooked on portable butane stoves with toned girlfriends who wore West Coast running shoes like Nike’s and New Balance.

But today he had not gone across. He was in the middle of the creek on a twisted island of logs that had come downstream during the storms last spring. He was with the three boys he had known since birth and they were stoned nearly senseless. Peak hormones, illicit substances, resentments and carbohydrates made him heavy. Lou lay down on a thick timber trunk and closed his eyes. The water rushed below him in the creek bed, and he passed out.

‘Go for it, you fucking faggot,’ Ptaha yelled.

Lou sat up fast to see Joey holding the smaller boy in a head lock and balancing on the next log over. He was holding the tip of the knife to the bulging artery in Ptaha’s neck. Burmylo was hitting on the bong. Behind a haze of smoke, he laughed at the tangled pair. Fucked up out of his skull. Like he was watching a sketch on Saturday Night Live. Joey still wasn’t saying anything. This is for real, Lou thought.

Lou coiled from his calves and released like he was going up for a rebound on the courts at West 4th Street where the hustlers from Harlem played. His shoulder hit the pair between Ptaha’s chest and Joey’s arm. He grabbed for the blade as they fell off the logs into the creek. Lou and Joey fell together. Ptaha fell clear of them. The blade sliced Lou’s palm cross-wise.

They stood up in the current on the uneven bedrock of the creek. Lou saw blood from his hand in the water. Ptaha was stumbling to the get out of the creek and up its bank. Lou had Joey by one arm, but they fell on their asses again and the water went over their heads. Lou came up with the knife, as Joey got pulled a few yards downstream to the other bank. He crawled out and sat down cross-legged. Joey’s red, white and blue Rangers beanie floated downstream. The bruise where his old man had walloped him was purple and green on his face. Burmylo’s fat camo-covered thighs came splashing up the middle of the creek. ‘Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit’, he kept repeating.

Lou got his balance and stood in the middle of the creek. ‘Fuucckkk!’, he yelled up at the bluff. He wheeled his body around, spun round like a discus thrower. Without looking, he threw the Bowie as hard and as far as he could.

There was a muffled ‘ooof’ and then Slick Head’s screaming voice. The boys scrambled over the rise and toward it. About twenty yards away, in a sink hole of snow-covered stones and winter scrub, Mr Y was sitting with the middle of his back against a thin birch tree. His slick red hands were near his groin and pressing around the knife stuck in him. The carved handle stuck out. There was a Golden Apple logo on its butt. It was like Mr Y been gored by a buck deer. His eyes were closed and his face showed nothing.

‘You idiots! You sukyni syny, sons of bitches! Who? Who threw it? There will be extreme consequences,’ yelled Slick Head with his panic coming in a machine gun burst of words and blame. He’s thinking about his own sorry ass already, Lou made up.

The boys stood in a circle around Mr Y and Slick Head knelt beside him. Blood was seeping into the knees of Slick Head’s dark grey uniform pants. Water dripped from the boys’ wet clothes and made icy spots on the stones. More blood dripped from Lou’s fingers.

Mr Y picked up his hand and a ball of blood glugged from his wound. He touched Slick Head’s furious face. It made a bloody handprint on the other man’s full cheek and across the ridge of his nose. With open eyes, as more blood leaked out, Mr Y looked at Slick Head and said:

“Easy, my comrade, easy. This is an accident. No blame. Honour me by knowing that and writing it to my sister in our country.”

Mr Y’s and Lou’s blood sluiced through the grainy grooves between the stones and the snow. A breeze blew and a remnant of fall’s leaves skittered around the boys’ legs.

Lou thought of the old mail – a ConEd bill, a pale blue AirMail envelope from the old country, and a thicker envelope with donation slips for the Church – on the mosaic-tiled landing outside the battered tin door of his grandmother’s tenement apartment. They’d come with his mother to clear the place out after Baba’s heart attack killed her in a country she didn’t know to call home.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s