By Joseph Bathanti
In Memory of Howard Adler
Mr. Kolansky had been in a Concentration Camp, but that meant little to the three boys who tormented him. Concentration, a word used often by the nuns who taught the boys Catechism in school, meant thinking very deeply and laboriously, something they did not like to do. They weren’t sure how to reconcile the words, concentration and camp. They knew, however, by the looks on the adults’ faces, and the pitch of their voices, when they mentioned Mr. Kolansky having been in a Concentration Camp, that whatever it might be was very serious, part of the war and the Depression – things still hovering in the ether of East Liberty as palpably as the intoxicating smell of baking bread rising from the ovens of National Biscuit Company on Penn Avenue, just across from the Little League Field and the Dairy Queen.
Kolansky’s was a two story listing insulbrick store at the corner of Howe and Social Streets. Its inventory was sparse, as old as Mr. Kolansky, covered with dust, dwindling, never replenished, it seemed, except for milk, bread, butter, and penny candy. It was as if, when the very last item was sold off – a jar of relish, a box of jujubes, a tin of thumb tacks – he’d switch off the dim bulbs dangling from long wires noosed to the rafters and walk out of the caving, lopsided shack and never return. He lived, supposedly, with his wife in the apartment above his store. No one had really ever seen her, though some claimed to have glimpsed her peering down, from a filmed oval window, into the alley behind the store.
Edward, one of the three boys, lived just a block from Kolansky’s. Edward’s grandmother, with whom he lived, along with his grandfather – his parents were dead – sent him often to the Jew Store to buy a quart of milk, a loaf of bread, and a stick of butter. Like Concentration Camp, Edward wasn’t so sure what Jew, in this context, meant, but he knew it was not good, a derogation. He was a fifth grader at a Catholic school. He had been taught by the nuns – they had beaten it into him – to worship Jesus, a Jew. How could Jew be bad if Jesus, the Son of God, the Light of the World, was a Jew? But his grandmother was not the only one who called Kolansky’s The Jew Store. It was just what people called it – matter-of-factly, seemingly without rancor, without thinking, a mere designation.
Edward’s family was Italian. His grandfather – who had first deified Mussolini, Il Duce, and then denounced him – sometimes called Mr. Kolansky Morta Cristo. These were words – concentration, camp, Jew, Morta Cristo, Il Duce, like nigger, guinea, hunky, even Kolansky – which Edward felt somehow outside of. He didn’t know how to wield language himself, but it was a force that washed over him, often in terrible and confusing ways – spray-painted on the walls of the abandoned alley tenements were fuck and pussy, eat me – and he remained terrified of the answers to the questions clawed into the walls of his brain.
Mr. Kolansky wore the clothes of the dead, the crossed over: a small black beret, pulled to his unruly gray eyebrows, a necktie hanging from a flannel shirt, a heavy black shawl-neck sweater. His face was gray, his nose a blade, his mouth a crease he could not quite make into a smile, his teeth long and yellow. He smelled of smoke, though he did not smoke. His eyes too were gray; they could sometimes smile. Behind the counter at which he presided, on rickety shelves, tiered to the ceiling, were the sparse remnants of his canned goods: pork and beans, apple sauce, soup, tuna. From a leather thong, on a nail, hung a long stick with pincers and a hook at its end to reach the cans, but few of his handful of customers ever asked for them.
Mr. Kolansky looked kindly at Edward when the boy entered the store every few days for his grandmother’s ration of milk, bread, and butter. Mr. Kolansky understood that Edward, like most people, had learned, perhaps without realizing, to be two people. There was the boy who came in, alone, looking so orphaned, still a child with bangs, who accepted, with deference and humble thanks, the pretzel stick Mr. Kolansky handed him free of charge, or the blood-red wax lips Edward wore until they softened into chewing gum. There was also that other boy, the one who, along with his friends, took such vicious delight in abusing Mr. Kolansky.
In the alley behind Kolansky’s was a basketball hoop: bent, netless, no backboard, long ago nailed to the telephone pole crowned by a streetlamp that automatically winked on each summer evening at 8:30 sharp. Once darkness fell save for the streetlamp, Mr. Kolansky sometimes hobbled out of his store, still in his beret, necktie, and heavy sweater, where Edward bounced the big ball and threw it, with an precise, measured arc, high into the evening so that it fell through the rusted ring.
Edward taught Mr. Kolansky how to dribble and shoot, and the two of them played a game called 21: two points for a shot from a line they scratched with chalk on the alley floor fifteen feet directly in front of the hoop; and one point for a lay-up, a soft shot from just beneath the hoop – though they paid no attention to the score. Mr. Kolansky pushed the ball off with two hands from the chalk line, but it was too much for him. The ball fell back to earth before it even made it to the hoop. He rarely made a long shot, but he was meticulous with small things, took his time, especially those nights under the moon, the exquisite smell of pastry wafting from Nabisco.
His gait was tortured. In his exhausted black hobnails, he shuffled side to side, in a mincing semi-circle toward the hoop, as if dancing the Hora, his hands above him, in adoration. He seemed to close his eyes, the yellow necktie streaming, unmoored from inside his sweater, and played perfectly the angle off the pole and through the rim.
Edward loved those nights, the generous, mysterious moon, the way Mr. Kolansky lifted his hands in praise. He said, “Nice shot, Mr. Kolansky. Way to go.” That is when Mr. Kolansky smiled, but by then it was too dark for Edward to witness. He saw only Mr. Kolansky’s long sad teeth and, he would swear, Mrs. Kolansky at her station in the cameo-shaped window above them.
Edward played on that same hoop with his friends, but their game, in the blaze of daylight, was very different. They pivoted and jumped, sprinted and banged into each other. They cursed and argued and fought. They kept score. There were recriminations and bad blood.
They sang: “Whistle while you work, Hitler is a jerk, Mussolini bit his weenie, Now it doesn’t work.” They slobbered with laughter. When they got thirsty, they went into Kolansky’s and bought five-cent bottles of pop kept cold in a big, red, icy casket. They paid exclusively with pennies, which they dug, deliberately, protractedly, from their pockets, one at a time, and counted “1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” placing each, with its rabbinical profile of the prophet, Abraham Lincoln, separately on the counter as if it were all a test at computation for Mr. Kolansky – merely disembodied numbers and not the price of goods. Numbers like those tiny faded blue integers tattooed in the still soft flesh inside Mr. Kolansky’s forearm.
Patiently, graciously, Mr. Kolansky accepted their money, counted it himself – ”1, 2, 3, 4, 5” – and bared his yellow teeth in mute semblance of a smile. “Pennies,” he said in his yeasty Yiddish accent. “Pennies, pennies, pennies.” The boys laughed uncontrollably when he counted and showed his teeth, when he said “Pennies.” He knew they laughed at him. But they were children and he hoped they would not have to suffer dreadfully in order to learn when not to laugh. Mr. Kolansky could only smile in the darkness when he played basketball with Edward, but he had not laughed in years and years, nor was he able to, as if forbidden. Yet he would not deprive children of their laughter, even if obscene.
Once the boys had their pop, they asked for pickles from the enormous glass crock where stupendous koshers clustered in grotesque schools. Mr. Kolansky thrust a long fork into the pissy brine and proffered a pickle. “Not that one,” one of them would say. That was the game: Not that one. Until after an eternity of gaffing out pickle after pickle – Not that one – the boys, laughing hard as donkeys, each finally accepted a pickle and plunked down 1, 2 pennies to pay. Mr. Kolansky repeated “1, 2,” his 2 ringing in three keening syllables, dropped the coins in his fantastic cash register, and said “Pennies,” as they laughed.
During these times, Edward refused to look at Mr. Kolansky. He had stepped into the other boy he was, disembodied from his actions, the bitter orphan boy, powerless against the gross instinct sprouting between his legs. Mr. Kolansky refused as well to look at Edward, their pact to not acknowledge the secret lives they shared under the moon with the basketball.
Mr. Kolansky wished he could speak to Edward about this sorrow, but he, too, had been confounded by words and understood perfectly there was not an answer to being two people at once. Sorrow was his daily office; he prayed for Edward every night. The other two boys: one a hapless follower, not mean, but inconsequential, blameless in his sad anonymity and Catholic schoolboy pubescence, fading away in the wake of 1965, as America prepared for yet another war; and then the puffy vicious one, the assassin, who scared Mr. Kolansky, with his football jerseys, Cupid lips, and bulbous swine hands.
The outside wall of Kolansky’s – the wall mounted with cans, just behind Mr. Kolansky, as he stood at his counter – faced the alley, its gray and pink patterned insulbrick porous, aged black joists beneath visible in patches. The boys’ favorite game was to load a shopping cart filled with cinder blocks and bricks they salvaged from adjacent factory lots and ram it, again and again, into that back wall, beneath the window where Mr. Kolansky’s phantom wife kept vigil. The repeated concussion shook the flimsy building; the cans behind Mr. Kolansky shimmied from their shelves and fell upon him.
Two of the boys stationed themselves at the counter, taunting Mr. Kolansky over the pickles, parsing out their pennies as Mr. Kolansky rasped out ”Pennies” over and over while the third drove the cart into the alley wall until the cans rained down. Each time this occurred, Mr. Kolansky stiffened at the first thud, his face stricken, as if a monster, a monster he knew well, had returned to beat down his home. Then the cans dropped on him. He threw up his hands to shield his head. The cans rarely found him, though he had been bruised badly on his shoulder and had his hand gashed. The boys inside the store laughed wildly as the cans fell. Nothing had ever so satisfied them.
This day, it was the anonymous boy assaulting the wall with the shopping cart. Inside the store – instructing No not that one, No not that one, That one, No, not that one, Yes, No as Mr. Kolansky fished for the correct pickle – were the swine boy and Edward. The wall behind Mr. Kolansky boomed and quivered. There came across his gray face that look between amnesia and hideous recollection.
As the swine boy laughed, his fat red face doubled in size; a hiss steamed from it like a hot water bottle. He was about to explode. Edward could not help it: he laughed and laughed – such was his sorrow, his sacrifice. Mr. Kolansky danced, dodging cans, gray hands twirling in sacred ritual above his head.