Zachary C. Solomon ~ Old Country

It was sort of sur­re­al the way the whole thing unfold­ed. We picked up Grandma and Grandpa in Mom’s Honda Odyssey. Grandpa was wear­ing a plaid short-sleeved shirt tucked into khakis. He had some stub­ble on his cheeks which pricked when I kissed him hel­lo. And Grandma looked bet­ter than I had seen her look in years. Yes, she was still in the wheel­chair, but she was sit­ting erect, with it, her eyes watch­ing. She smiled, called me tata­la, which I think means ‘boy’ in Yiddish. Before they climbed in the back­seat with me, an aide had them both turn and face their home—a house in one of those Twilight Zone com­mu­ni­ties where the same cac­tus sits on the same square of grass in each yard—as a way of say­ing good­bye. But the house nev­er meant any­thing to them any­way. They had only spent the last ten years there. This wasn’t Czechoslovakia, or Ukraine, their child­hood homes, the places they left because of the Nazis. This was just one of those retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties, the kind named after the things they destroyed in order to build them.

Dad was dri­ving and Mom got in the back with me and Grandma to give Grandpa the front seat. I noticed they didn’t have any bags with them—not even a cane for Grandpa—but I didn’t want to ask why. It felt like the kind of thing I should have already under­stood, what­ev­er it was we were doing. I had been in Hebrew school for a cou­ple of years, so I was sure it was my fault I didn’t get what was going on; I was prob­a­bly draw­ing the KISS logo or work­ing on my lyrics dur­ing the sec­tion about what hap­pened after the Holocaust. I knew we were say­ing a kind of good­bye, and I knew there wasn’t going to be a funer­al or any­thing, but out­side of that, noth­ing.

It was a long dri­ve to wher­ev­er we were going. I kept nod­ding off and hit­ting the side of my head on the win­dow, then jolt­ing awake. Mom talked the whole time. I could tell she was real­ly ner­vous. Dad was qui­et, but he was always qui­et, keep­ing his hands at 11 and 2 on the wheel. Grandpa looked straight ahead at the road. Mom was talk­ing about grow­ing up, basi­cal­ly going through what­ev­er mem­o­ry was in her head at that exact moment. It was like pour­ing water out of a big jug and onto the patio. Her hand was hold­ing Grandma’s, hang­ing between the two buck­et seats, swish­ing with the bumps on the road. The gro­cery store they used to own, the kosher butch­ery, the shame that Grandma and Grandpa’s oth­er two kids, my two uncles, weren’t com­ing with us to say good­bye. I watched Mom squeeze Grandma’s hand a bunch like lit­tle puls­es. Every once in a while Mom would ask a ques­tion like “Do you know what’s going to hap­pen,” or, “Are you sure you don’t need coats” but no one would answer back. It real­ly was like she was the only per­son in the car. I didn’t think I had the right to par­tic­i­pate; I felt bad about not pay­ing atten­tion in class. I made a promise to do bet­ter, though I felt bad in advance for break­ing that promise.

We must have been on the high­way for hours. I kept doz­ing off, jump­ing up, doz­ing off. I kept try­ing to stay awake because I had just turned ten. But noth­ing changed. Not even the high­way, which had these big beige walls that rose and fell like waves. Birds perched on them and palms peeked over the top.

Eventually we got off at an exit. It occurred to me that this was one of the longest dri­ves I had ever been on, even though it was only like four hours. We usu­al­ly just flew every­where because there’s noth­ing real­ly in dri­ving dis­tance worth going to, just more beach­es and more retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties, places with names like The Falls or Snapper Creek or Flamingo City, though I might have made that last one up.

Dad pulled the mini­van into this giant park­ing lot, a square like a mile wide. There were hun­dreds and hun­dreds of cars, and crowds worse even than Disney World. It was a dock or a pier, like a place where they ship those huge crates. We parked real­ly far from the entrance and it took lit­er­al­ly hours for Grandma and Grandpa to walk. Grandma was easy with the wheel­chair, but Grandpa didn’t even have his cane, so he had to hold onto Dad’s arm for sup­port and my shoul­der, which I didn’t like because he squeezed too tight and his hand was like a talon.

People were every­where, walk­ing with their own old peo­ple, some slow­ly, but some real­ly push­ing it. The peo­ple seemed sad, but with that look that adults get, when you know they’re sad but you also know that they’re kind of hap­py about some­thing, too. Like sad but what can you do. There wasn’t any push­ing either, every­one was real­ly polite. At some point there were ropes, and we start­ed to file into lines that snaked back and forth. People in uni­forms were smil­ing in a nice way, ush­er­ing every­one along, ask­ing them kind­ly to form order­ly lines. Everyone was polite and wait­ing their turn. We went through a small build­ing with some security—X-ray machines and met­al detectors—and then on the oth­er side there was the ocean.

Humongous cruise ships float­ed gen­tly in the water. Dad said it was orga­nized chaos. There were signs above each of the docks or piers with the names of dif­fer­ent coun­tries writ­ten on them. Italy. Moldova. Hungary. Estonia. Ukraine. Czechoslovakia. Lithuania. France. Croatia. Some I hadn’t even heard of before. We got to a desk and a man asked “Country of ori­gin?” Mom touched Grandma and said Czechoslovakia, and Dad touched Grandpa and said Ukraine, but then Dad said, “But they’re hap­py going wher­ev­er, as long as they can stay togeth­er.” Then Dad touched Mom and smiled. Mom cried a lit­tle. The man gave a tick­et to both Grandma and Grandpa and said, “Sure, no prob­lem.” Then we moved to the side and Dad told me to say good­bye.

I looked around and every­where there were peo­ple hug­ging old peo­ple and cry­ing, and kids my age kind of stand­ing back and watch­ing. I made eye con­tact with a boy like two years old­er than me and he made a gun with his fin­gers and touched it to his tem­ple and laughed. Then I looked at Grandma and Grandpa who were watch­ing me. I didn’t want to kiss Grandpa again because of the stub­ble, but Dad nudged me for­ward with his hip and I kissed him any­way. I bent a lit­tle and hugged Grandma in her chair. They both looked at me. Grandma’s eyes were wet. They told me to be good and then said good­bye, and Grandma called me tata­la again. I said bye back, but it didn’t occur to me I would nev­er see them again. Then they turned toward a guy in a uni­form who led them up this long ramp into the mid­dle of one of the ships. I glanced back at Mom and Dad. They had their arms around each oth­er and Mom was cry­ing again, but also exhal­ing a lot, like she was real­ly relieved. The ship’s horn sound­ed, echo­ing in my head.

~

Zachary C. Solomon is a Miami-born, Brooklyn-based writer and adjunct English lec­tur­er. He holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from Brooklyn College and his work appears in Green Mountains Review, Full-Stop, Tablet Magazine, and Bookslut. He recent­ly com­plet­ed his first nov­el.