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The Road to Fez

The Road to Fez
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Excerpt

I'm still eleven years old, staring at Kunkle's Furniture Store window on Liberty Bell Road in Horsens. What Old Man Kunkle had set up: a tribute to the American Family Christmas, 1962. In the first window, the couch and chair were Early American, solid oak. An artificial fire blazed in the fireplace. Two smiling blond mannequin children sat in front of a Christmas tree weighted with gold balls, silver bells and wreaths of tinsel. A star flashed on and off at the top of the tree. I wanted that tree. It was mine! The whole room was mine! The gifts scattered on the floor were mine! The fire was supposed to warm me, the light cast its soft shadow on me.

I moved to the next window, looked in the kitchen and saw the mother. Blonde, blue-eyed as her children, she smilingly reached to pull something from the oven. A pie? Pumpkin or mince? Plum pudding? Almost close enough to touch, in her blue and white gingham apron.

In the next window, the father, brown-haired, blue-eyed, sat on the bed, leaning forward to put on his brown leather slippers. One foot in a gray sock lightly touched the hardwood floor. The other foot was already half in the slipper. He looked tired, but a healthy tired—weary from a day's work at the office. No remote, faraway look in his blue eyes. This father couldn't wait to join the children in the living room, was already tasting his wife's pie.

I glared at the people standing outside, next to me. A family—father, mother, two children—like the family in the windows. The kids were so heavily bundled I couldn't see their faces. The father wore transparent, horn-rimmed glasses, not like Dad's dark glasses which were designed to make sure no one saw his eyes. The mother had shiny pale brown hair. They smiled at the windows, smiled in recognition. "Isn't that sweet?" said the mother. The father put his arm around her. "Next year we'll get a four-poster," he said, "just like that one."

They spoke fearlessly, distinctly, their English pure and true. I heard Mom clicking her teeth as she struggled over absurd words: hippopotamus, anniversary, spaghetti—until she turned red with frustration. And Dad, slurring the final syllables of every word, the endings of sentences—in his rush to disguise his accent.

These mothers didn't have a gold tooth like Mom's. The mother next to me didn't have hair that fell in a tangle of black curls to her waist. Her hair was tight and controlled, a gleaming silk cap. The mother in the window didn't cook cous-cous and dafina, or use spices like cumin, za'atar or ksboor. The father never saw her seeking her future in spread-out mint tea leaves, or dancing on bare, round feet to Enrico Macias and Jo Amar. No! This mother and father danced decorously to "sleighbells ring—are you listening?..." wafting from the store's loudspeaker. I could almost smell their world: the pie baking, the fresh evergreen tree, the piney, woodsy scent.

I went inside the main entrance of the store and pushed past the smiling salesmen until I came to the display window with the children and the tree. From within the store, it was different. I saw the wires and lights flashing. The children looked plastic and unreal—their faces too evenly pink, their mouths tiny, painted red hearts, their eyes empty blue glass. Even the tree was only decorated in front, its sharp green needles flattened and empty from the back.

I entered the cozy living room of the window. It was very hot: the lights, glowing wires and heat made my head swim. I took another step in, and another, careful not to trip over the wires and cords in my red galoshes (two sizes too big). Where to station myself? What was my role? I smiled down at the little boy opening an electric train set and the girl clutching a doll as fair and uniformly pink as she was. I willed myself to appear innocent, pure: a Christian from Paris. Who could imagine that inside this jacket and dress, the neatly braided hair, hid a Jew? I pretended to know nothing of djnoun, martyred Jews, ghosts and spirits. I belonged here. "I'm your cousin from Paris," I said softly. "Don't you recognize me?"

They didn't respond so I turned to my audience. My audience! A surprise visit to Horsens, PA, from the one and only Brit Lek, here on loan from the Royal Marrakesh—I mean, the Royal Paris Theater. Let's give her a hand and welcome her!

The people outside the window were dim and blurred in the fog. I saw overcoats, shadowed features, indistinct movements, a large pointed finger. So that's how it is from in here. We're warm, protected, golden. And you all look the same: dark, huddled, faceless. Maybe that was how it was meant to be: always an inside, always an outside. Someone has to be in, and someone has to be out. We can't all be inside. I needed to tell Dad: we can't all squeeze into this small room.


© Ruth Knafo Setton

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