December 10, 1944.
Weather: wet snow blanket. Pillows of ice
The guys and I don't bother meeting at each others’ houses anymore-at least since we met Markus.
“Ice coffee anyone?” He chirps, dishing out ice water and straws. The deli is cold and empty today, tiny flecks of snow attaching to every red, plastic booth inside.
“It’s freezing outside.” Grater points out, motioning to the snow pouring from the ash-gray sky.
“So?” Markus shrugs, eyeing the piles of uneaten food on our plastic plates. “I’m still offering, and coffee is coffee.”
None of us respond. My coat sticks to my body like a wet blanket, but I pull it tighter across my body even though the thermostat is jacked up too high.
“Nah, you know what we’ve come for Markus.” Zed shakes his head and turns around to face Markus, watching his face twist up in understanding.
“You’ve come to ask about the openings, haven’t you.” The silence comforts me as I observe the snow turning to sleet over the cars on highway 72. Minutes go by and a waiter comes by our table to collect the plates of food.
“Markus-” Zed tries again, but Markus interrupts him coldly.
“Sorry. There aren’t any openings here, and there won’t be for a long time. Maybe you should re-apply at the factory.”
Swirling snow feels like cotton candy against my tongue. The door to “NYC’s Finest” creaks behind me as I exit, my hand waving goodbyes, then sheltered in my pocket, protected from the rainy sludge. Doubt and dashed dreams drag me down, and it is too late. I have already drowned.
December 20th, 1944
Weather: ashy fog chalkboard. Hot chocolate and pine nettles.
“It’s too early Karen.”
“Now if I run quickly, we’ll make a good deal on a tiny one this year.” It’s too early for a Christmas tree, but my wife is already shouldering her purse and heading out the door. “If I hurry, we can get a good one on sale!”
I stare at the patch of tile, worn from the years we had lugged a tree each year, spending the evening with the lights dazzling in our eyes, mugs of hot chocolate in hand. Somehow, the empty spot makes me shiver, or it is the cold from the broken heater and wintery clumps of snow seeping through the wafer-thin walls. Before I can protest, my wife is out into the hallway, and I can faintly hear her humming as she makes her way down the elevator.
My eyes are sore from staying up all night, but I can’t fall asleep, even when I lie facedown, the smell of leather tickling my nose from the couch. Instead, my thoughts drive me into the fog outside, a slight sense of ice and sleet about the morning.
Thoughts scrape me at the sides, but the comfort of walking amid other neighbors does little to comfort me. I am the chalk, furiously scraping myself to find the words, words that come at a price but are priceless. And still, the sounds quake below me, and flurries of new thoughts weave their way onto a chalkboard clouded with grainy chalk dust.
“Are you planning to buy a ticket or not?” I fully awaken in front of a ticket booth, a plump man struggling to pick up the brochures and place them back into their glass sliders. His eyes bore into mine so I hesitantly pull away and glance around the shore. The boardwalk, or what’s supposed to be a boardwalk, is cluttered with people in a hurry, urgently boarding ferries and clambering off to get across to the island. Chancing a look at the city, I saw my apartment complex not so far away, wondering how my paced steps had led me to the harbor.
“Man, I don’t have time for this...round trip or one-way?” The man asked, pointing at the two types of tickets. “Oh, and Ellis Island or-”
I pause my inspection of the harbor, figuring the man looks impatient enough, and I choose the round trip ticket to Ellis Island. “Happy holidays,” I whisper to the fog, and find myself on a ferry, surrounded by hundreds of passengers, the sea stretching out like a canvas dappled with streaks of sea-blue.
December 20, 1944
Weather: Soft snow, dreamcatchers. Muffled hope and stuffed bears.
I have never been to Ellis Island, though I’ve lived in New York all my life and my father had come here as an immigrant this way. The weather is different here on the island-slightly warmer and instead of sleet, I can feel the powdery snow dancing on my fingertips.
“Looking for someone?” A woman dressed in a navy blue raincoat gently taps me on the shoulder, my head swiveling to face the massive brick building swarming with people. More boats are positioned on the other side of the island, but they seem to be empty.
“Um-no, I’m, well, just visiting?”
The woman’s eyebrows raise just a little over her forehead, giving way to a small smile. “Visiting? We hardly ever get visitors, but we do get immigrants. Lots of them, from all over the world.” Her smile falters a bit, and I notice ourselves moving towards the building’s double doors. “They’ve come to seek refuge, to have a better life here, and still, not many get the chance.”
We push through the doors, revealing what looks to be a school building-but adults, children, and officers stand in lines, getting evaluated.
“Some of our officers don’t appreciate these immigrants. They think they’re trying to invade, but all these people want is a fresh start.”
Unlike my apartment, the heater is actually working, so I slip off my coat and carry it in one hand as we walk down a secluded hallway. It is as if this island held another world, a real world, and a scary world for those who had seen horrors. Across the hallway, I see an abandoned stuffed bear lying on the ground. Gingerly, I pick it up and examine the toy. The bear’s nose is a button, one ear mangled, the other half of the tiny head. The toy is bright pink.
Storybook world. Languages, so many different tongues, meanings, and conversations. There are tears, laughter, love, and joy. There are people singing below the Christmas tree, and there is a muffled kind of hope. Where have I been-in this storybook kind of world, with the skies, birds, and trees?
The woman and I don’t talk much until we’ve made it to another set of doors. Here, she tells me. “Here, their relatives come to take them to their new homes-or others tend to help each other out until they get jobs.”
Jobs. How hard it must be to step on foreign ground, rustle up troubles where the money isn’t found.
“Or, they come alone. Sometimes, they’re children.”
Children. The ones who emerge from the building aren’t children. They’ve seen too much-been through too much, too many times.
“Where is she?” A voice calls out from the crowd, searching for their relatives. “I can’t leave without it! Where is the bear?” She calls out again, in Irish, her relatives swarming, clearing a path to a young girl shrieking for her bear. My father had come from Ireland on one of these boats before I was born. He was from Ireland, and there was a famine. Maybe that's why he never brought me to this island.
I move through the crowd, breaking into a jog, the woman following close behind me. The bear is wrapped tightly around my arm, the young girl immediately seeing her prized possession.
“Look! Look!” She calls to her family, an exchange of Irish words scattering back and forth. The girl takes her bear shyly, then gets a better look at me. “What is that?” She tries to speak in English, pointing to my sweater at the reindeer etched on the front.
“Oh-a reindeer. Réinfhianna.” The girl touches the reindeer once more and smiles.
“I like your réinfhianna.” Then, she runs back to her family, waving at me. Finally, after some silence, the woman speaks.
“We’re like their dreamcatchers. They wish for opportunities, and we try to give them as many as they need. Imagine how far they have come…” She stares wistfully out into the wave of people and sighs.
“I’ve never made a dreamcatcher before,” I admit, mimicking weaving the strings together.
“I guess you’ve never tried, then. But still, you will have to go to some training before we can think about hiring you.” I stop in my tracks, surprised she figured it out. “I assume you brought a round ticket here-right?” I nod, still dazed as we walk inside.
“Come back after the holiday season and we might offer you a job here.” I can’t help but smile, imagining the chalkboard sky, hot cocoa, and pine nettles, powdery snow and sleet, and a stuffed bear.
“I’ll teach you how to make a dreamcatcher when you apply. They really aren’t too hard to make but it takes heart to be one.”
The world had pulled me out of the ocean, and for the first time in weeks, I could breathe.
January 20, 1945
Hopes, tears, love, stars, and a canvas of sea-blue and green-the skies and clouds smiling down at rising dreams.