The airplane lavatory has plastic walls, miniature bathroom fixtures, and stale air. My jeans and sneakers lie crumpled on the nonslip flooring. From my backpack, which is crammed next to the sink, I pull a six-pack of kosher hot dogs. I lift my foot onto the closed toilet. My big toe pokes through the sock. I’ve frozen the hot dogs for travel, and when I press them against my thigh my skin prickles. The seat belt sign flashes orange and a disembodied voice, fighting roaring twin engines, announces a turbulent descent into Winnipeg International Airport. Lavatories disgust me, flying scares me, so this landing might just freeze my heart.
With my free hand I fish from the backpack one of my tefillin: a long leather band attached to a black box containing small-print biblical scrolls. When traditional Jews pray, they wrap the band seven times around the arm, then three times around the hand in the shape of a Hebrew letter that resembles a bird’s claw. I wind it seven times around my leg and the hot dog package, then three more times, tightly. The box dangles behind my knee. The tefillin were my father’s, and, I’m told, he put them on nearly every morning of his adult life. I haven’t put them on in the 13 years since my bar mitzvah, but my mother asked me to bring them, I think in case my stepfather, Simmy, dies and there are shivah prayers. Simmy recently had a heart attack, which is why I’m here. It was a mild attack, but my mother is going crazy. She’s a hummingbird, beating her wings faster than the eye can see, zipping here and there. My dad died of a heart attack when I was five, and Simmy’s dad died of one when he was young, too.
My jeans pull tight over the hot dogs, but they fit. I’ve worn baggy clothes since high school, when I’d nab pants from Simmy’s closet. Simmy’s an ox. He loves to say, “I’m just a milkman who loves meat.” Of course, Simmy’s a milkman only in the sense that his family owns the largest dairy distributorship in central Canada. His clothes used to sag on me, giving me a scarecrow look that was popular then.
When I sit back in my seat I feel dampness on my ass. My jeans came in contact with some mystery liquid on the lavatory floor. I finish filling out the declaration card. I’d stopped in the middle after reading that I’d have to declare any meat products I’m bringing into Canada. I could’ve thrown out the hot dogs, but I’ve brought them from Chicago for Simmy because all the kosher butchers in Winnipeg have gone under and he loves traditional Jewish food. Simmy has bankrolled my life as student, both undergraduate and now in grad school for library sciences.
As we land I see the snazzy, almost finished new airport—all glass and sleek angles—winking at the old, doomed one. I descend, butt cheeks clenched to minimize contact with my pants, down the old airport’s rickety escalators and into the customs zone, a squat basement with wear-resistant carpet and bare walls. Residue of industrial cleaning products irritates my eyes and sinuses. I must’ve cinched the tefillin band too tightly because my leg begins to feel numb—although it’s hard to be sure, to be certain of nonsensation, like knowing I’ve forgotten something. The blood pumps harder than usual.
When I was young I imagined that airport customs was full of hilarity. My best friend was Mickey Lichtman, and his father Lou was a customs agent full of funny stories, like the one about an old woman whose stomach literally growled. A request that she unzip her track suit revealed a bug-eyed Brussels Griffon that had papers vouchsafing his impeccable breeding but none certifying a rabies shot. I could become one of those stories with my moronic idea to smuggle hot dogs.
Last I heard, Lou was still working in customs, but I haven’t kept in touch with him or with Mickey. I feel guilty about it and have been dreading seeing Lou. But he’s not at either open booth. Instead, two pale blockheads in blue uniforms take their sweet time shuffling people through. There are several other booths lined up across the room, but they’re dark and abandoned.
A lady in a pink track suit at the front of my line gropes in a giant purse for her passport and declaration card. Perhaps she has a mental or ocular infirmity that prevented her from seeing the prominent signs asking travelers to have those documents handy. Perhaps she should be suffocated with her stupid purse.
A tall female guard strides behind the closed booths. She has fiery red hair pulled back into a ponytail and skin so pale and pink that she looks feverish or slightly boiled. She marches athletically, like the softball or volleyball players I see on television, until she’s next to me. She smells like Lake Michigan on clear early mornings. My lower abdomen churns with a nausea that I don’t want to end.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she says, “please have your declaration cards and passports out and available. The Canada Border Services Agency appreciates your assistance.”
She marches away to an office. Her door closes.
When he was 12, Mickey got a baby newt for a pet and forgot to punch holes into its Tupperware container home. I feel like that newt.
Finally it’s my turn, and I hand over the documents. The customs agent sits on a slightly elevated platform and has small features that get lost in his big, round face. He scans my declaration card.
“Reason for your trip?”
“Who?” He swipes my passport into a slot above his keyboard.
“My mother and her husband.”
The agent’s eyes flicker across a computer screen. He scribbles on the declaration card, then hands back the documents and swivels in his chair. “See that door under the sign that says ‘Processing’? Go through there.”
Nobody else has been sent to Processing. The other passengers strolled right through to baggage claim. This can’t be good. I lumber stiff-legged over the worn carpet. My muscles are weakening. I make little experiments, trying to lift my leg a little higher, swinging it to the side.
I should probably call Simmy, who’s picking me up. My mom doesn’t drive. She can, but she defers to Simmy. The story goes that she took my father to the hospital and the trauma soured her on driving from then on. People have referred to this anecdote, to my face, as if it were fact. My dad died in Chicago on a business trip, alone in his hotel room, eating deep-dish pizza and watching the Winnipeg Jets defeat the Calgary Flames—the last time the Jets won a hockey playoff series. It wasn’t even a close game. No, my mother is just petrified of driving. For years after my father died, until Simmy came along, she drove me around with her hands glued to the ten and two positions, eyes wide in terror.
A sign above the door to the Processing office shows a telephone with a big red line through it, so I guess no phone call. The new room has the same ordinary awfulness as the last one, but it’s smaller. Behind a desk sits none other than Lou Lichtman. He looks exactly the same as he did 20 years ago. He looked 55 then and he looks 55 now. His mustache is still bushy, still appears to have been ripped off a bigger face and glued onto his small one. It hides his upper lip and seems to weigh down his smile, which nevertheless presses up crookedly. His grey hair is cropped a little closer.
“Jackie,” he says. Nobody’s called me Jackie in years. His eyes light up with an idea and he holds up a finger and turns the pages of a tome on his desk. “Jackie,” he says, “how propitious it is to see you.” He smiles like we’ve shared an inside joke. His hand is on the tome. It’s a dictionary.
Lou, save me from all this.
“Jackie, do you know what today is?”
I don’t know. It crosses my mind that it’s the anniversary of my father’s death. Lou was my father’s friend, and my earliest memories include them taking Mickey and me to Jets games, eating peanuts—we weren’t allowed to eat the pork-filled hot dogs—and the men drinking beer, and everyone yelling, “Shoot the puck!”
“Rosh Hashanah?” I shrug. That was six months ago.
“It’s the 36th-to-last workday of my life.”
“I should’ve brought flowers,” I say, “but then you’d have to confiscate them.”
“I’d have to—my boss has it in for me.” He pokes a thumb to one side. I’ve been so preoccupied I haven’t noticed the office walls are glass. The redheaded guard sits in a similar room next door, staring back.
“She says I’m not taking the job seriously, just riding out my last little bit of time,” Lou winks. “Let’s see what you’ve gotten yourself into.”
I sneak a peak to the side, but the redhead has disappeared.
“Well, hand over the passport and declaration card already. Can’t you see I’m busy here?” He looks at my declaration card. “Oh, I see.”
“You’ve been red-flagged. You used a different passport here than you wrote on the boarding pass.”
I have Canadian and American passports. This was my problem: too much citizenship.
“I’d forgotten your father was American,” Lou says
“Yeah, he was from Chicago. He came up to Winnipeg for a fishing trip and met my mother, and moved to be with her.”
“The things we do for love.”
The door opens behind me. The redhead glares at Lou, hands on hips, body cocked to the side, and says, “Officer Lichtman.”
“Hello, Birna,” Lou says.
“I noticed this interview is quite afflable,” Birna says. She looks me up and down. I swear she lingers on my leg. I wonder if she really said “afflable” or my brain is misfiring.
“Well, we are friendly Manitoba,” Lou says.
“No, we’re not. We have a new motto: Manitoba—Spirited Energy. And you’re an officer of Canada, not Manitoba.”
“Okay, Birna, I’ll try to be less friendly.”
“CBSA protocol must be followed.”
“Protocol,” Lou says, turning a page in the dictionary. “I was just looking at that. I’m on P today. From the Greek, prot, meaning ‘first’ or ‘original’ and kolla, meaning ‘glue,’ denoting the first leaf that was glued onto a papyrus roll, bearing its official authentication and date of manufacture.”
“I’m worried you don’t properly appreciate the gravitas of the situation.” Birna stalks out of the room.
“I surely don’t,” Lou says. “We call her Birna Fire. Mickey came up with it.”
“It’s a good one.” I’m wishing she’d taken me with her.
“She’s really committed to the honor of our station. She worked herself up from some crazy town up north where they barely let girls go to school. She’s amazing.”
“I’m sure she feels the same about you.”
“She’d fire me in a second. Which means I’ve got to keep you here for a little while, make it look like I’m asking you the right questions.”
I want to kick somebody somewhere sensitive. I want to take these hot dogs off so I can feel my leg again, but I’d be putting Lou in a bind.
“So what’s with the dictionary?” I ask.
“It started out as a joke. Mickey bought it for me when I got moved back here to Processing and complained of boredom. I like it, though. Little lessons about history or Latin.”
“He’s good. He’s a sportswriter for the Free Press.”
Mickey always talked about sportswriting, and I always talked about being captain of the Jets, even though I didn’t know how to skate.
“Too bad the Jets split,” I say. They moved to Phoenix, where it hasn’t snowed since the Pleistocene era.
“Maybe they’ll come back some day,” Lou says. “Mickey wrote something about that for today’s paper. Haven’t had a chance to read it yet. You should call him. He’d love to see you.”
“I’m a bad communicator. I’m no good at keeping in touch.”
“I know,” he says. “If only they’d invent something where you could type little notes anytime and send them instantaneously anywhere in the world.”
I have the urge to come clean about the hot dogs. Just confess and get it over with. It’d be a good retirement anecdote.
“Put anyone away lately? Any good stories?”
Lou presses his lips even farther up into his mustache. “Nah. People know customs is serious business these days. Nobody does anything stupid anymore. Too much risk.”
“That their stuff will get confiscated?”
“Well, what they do is, they make everyone sign the form and it puts you under oath—right here.” He points to my declaration card.
I nod. I try to move my leg, but it’s becoming an inanimate object.
“And then if you lie,” Lou continues, “they screw you for lying under oath and also obstructing an official investigation. So some poor schmuck who lies about stinky blue cheese can get sent up on a big charge.”
“That’d suck,” I say. My leg feels like its rolling around with a porcupine. I reach down and run my hand over my pants. I imagine the little tubes packed under there, shaped like little dynamite sticks.
“Lou, can I have a word?” Birna is standing in the doorway, eyeing me suspiciously.
“We’re almost done, Birna,” Lou says. “I’ll stop by soon.”
“I’ll be waiting.” Birna swivels and exits in a compact, military fashion.
“It’s not Rosh Hashanah,” Lou says to me.
“I was just kidding.”
“You don’t come home for Rosh Hashanah,” Lou says. Although I don’t know how he knows it, it’s true. “You should.”
“Rosh Hashanahs, they’re all the same.”
“That’s the point. Tradition, family.”
“You’re right,” I say. My God, just let me out of here.
All Rosh Hashanahs really are the same. Before dinner, Simmy talks about the importance of Jewish tradition and family. He puts his arm around my mom and they kiss. The next day Simmy and I go to synagogue and sit side by side, silently, standing when everyone else does. Simmy often holds the prayer book upside down. Dozens of people stop to wish Simmy a happy new year. “Thank you for coming with me,” Simmy says on the way home, putting on his aviator sunglasses. “I used to go with my father, and I don’t have a son to go with me.” Then we do it all again the second night and day.
“So you’re gonna come home for next Rosh Hashanah?” Lou asks.
“I hate flying,” I say.
“You can leave,” Lou says, “if you promise that you’ll come home for Rosh Hashanah.”
All I have to do is say the words, and I can leave. My leg is killing me.
“You know what,” Lou says. “You can’t make people feel a certain way. Just think about what I said.”
I try to look like I’m thinking about something important. I think about not falling over.
“You’re free as a bird,” Lou says.
“Great seeing you. Tell Mickey hello,” I say and stumble out of Lou’s office. My leg is an almost useless stump that offers only shivers of pain. I try a little skip motion. I try to swing my hips. The room swims.
Birna marches out her door and calls, “Excuse me.”
I wonder if I’ll ever get full function back in my legs. When I was a kid I’d fall asleep in strange positions and wake up with a useless arm. I’d stand on my bed, swinging my arm in panic.
I lurch into the next waiting room, this one for collecting checked luggage. The carousel grinds like a garbage disposal tearing at a misplaced knife. My lonely suitcase bumps along. The exit is on the far left side, where the wear-resistant carpeting becomes white tile and the fluorescent lights glare.
Two doors on my right display stick figures, one of a man and and the other of a woman—international symbols for the can. I forearm through the man’s chest. There are two urinals and a stall.
Birna bursts in. Her cheeks are even more flushed than before. I want to pull her against me.
“Why are you walking funny?” Birna asks.
“I’m not feeling well.”
“You’re hiding something. Drop your pants.”
I stare at Birna’s eyes, which are sea green. I have the urge to confess again. The words form on my tongue and behind my lips like bubbles.
“Let me get this straight,” I say instead. “You followed me into the bathroom, here we are alone, and you’re asking me to drop my pants?”
Birna’s cheeks become even more inflamed, which I would’ve thought impossible. She stares at me but she’s twitching now. I imagine squeezing her. I imagine kissing her bright lips.
“Is that protocol?” I ask.
She turns and leaves.
I stumble into the stall and lock it. I drop my pants. My leg is white, except at the top where it’s purple. I unwind the tefillin and put it in my bag. There’s no feeling in my leg. I use my hands to toss it back and forth. I slap it with the hot dogs and swing it.
Here comes the pain.
I smack my foot against the stall, which makes a tinny sound, like a broken snare drum. I do it again and again. I look at the hot dogs and realize that nobody checked my bag. I could’ve just left them in there. The packaging is wrinkled and one corner is ripped. I have nothing else to give to Simmy.
I slam the hot dog pack against the wall. I kick the wall and bang the hot dogs against it. I do it again and again and again, until the tinny echoes fill my ears.
A hot dog flies out of the package. It spins in the air like a dislodged helicopter propeller, bounces off the far wall, and splashes into the toilet. It bobs below the surface, vertically, then rises back into a horizontal position. Ripples push out to the end of the bowl. The hot dog floats around like a piece of crap. It looks like a perfect piece of crap—like a stage prop, like an exaggeration of perfect crap. It shines.
I put the rest of the hot dogs—which, it turns out, are individually wrapped in plastic—back into my bag by the tefillin.
My leg is tingly and tender, and it feels stiff, but I can, with difficulty, walk on it. And I walk out of the bathroom, leaving one kosher crap hot dog floating behind me.
I pick up my baggage and follow the yellow line out the doors. In the waiting area, Simmy sits in a faded chair, head back, mouth open, asleep. The sports section has fallen across his lap. He doesn’t look sick. He’s wearing jeans and a plaid shirt and could be resting up to wrestle a moose. His face has those handsome-older-man creases around the eyes and mouth. But inside his chest little gobs are trying to plug up his heart. It occurs to me that he’s probably not supposed to eat hot dogs. All I have for him is more of the same stuff that’s slowly killing him. I pick up the sports section. Mickey Lichtman has a story on the front page. I glance at it. It warns fans not to get their hopes up about the Jets returning. I place the paper back in Simmy’s lap, rest the hot dogs on top, and sit down to wait for him to wake up.