Thursday, August 8, 2013

Evil Fish

by Laurene Leon Boym

You can't miss the vernacular signage if you tried – a primitive wood oval roughly cut in the shape of a fish. The crooked placard is painted taxicab yellow to be visible from the Wittenberg Road in Bearsville, New York, ten minutes from the center of Woodstock. Constantin and I had visited the cottage behind the big fish sign the previous summer, having taken the wrong turn on a back road to nearby Cooper Lake. Inside the front porch, there was the cutest old lady selling sumptuous smoked trout and salmon, plus jars of locally made honey from hives in her own backyard. Or, so she claimed.

We were immediately hooked on the subtle and smoky flavor of the fish. It was manna from heaven. Trout and salmon were harvested onsite by her son, Mo Boy, after raising them in huge tanks in the greenhouse out back, then the cute old lady was in charge of hot smoking the whole bodies with the skin and bones intact. There was nothing tastier at any fish purveyor in New York City. That summer, we returned several times to greedily get our fix. As the old lady told us, that Wednesday was her smoking morning, and the same fish was available for sale in the afternoon. Wednesdays for the rest of Summer 2013 was spent impatiently waiting for a reservation at our very own Momofuku Ko of artisanal fish smokers.

This year, we looked forward to seeing the old lady and buying the fish again from her. From our log cabin, it was a longer drive to her house than I remembered, but the crooked sign was still out front. We parked in the back. I noticed a half smoked joint in an ashtray on the balustrade of the patio and wondered if the old lady was hitting the medical marijuana while catching up on her daily tv soap operas?

Inside her front room, nothing had changed, except there were huge bowls of leftover Halloween candy from the previous October. To paraphrase a boilerplate Russian saying, snack sized Hershey's Dark and Mr. Goodbars don't go bad.  I made a beeline for the Mr. Goodbars in the glass bowl, my favorite combo of peanut and chocolate (!) and ordered up 3 whole trout with my mouth full of melting chocolate.

After weighing the fish on an old fashioned scale, the old lady offered up the brown-paper wrapped smoked trout. She theatrically outstretched her hand, like we had never met. "My name is Grazina, or Graziella in Italian. In Spanish, Gratiella. But Americans call me Grace. I'm pleased to meet you.” She had forgot meeting us the previous summer and I had no intention of correcting her. With her thin fingers shaking with arthritis, the elderly woman's head swerved toward a faded framed cover of Sports Illustrated on the wall over her right shoulder. A wry smile illuminated her sun-damaged lips.

Continuing, she gestured toward the familiar face with her wobbly index finger, " Do you know about my Nephew, Vitas Gerulaitis?" As a child of the seventies, I did indeed remember the sun-kissed playboy tennis player, the quarrelsome tabloid fixture playing the mirror image to Bjork Borg's asphalt Viking god. Tennis in the 1970's was hot, but I remained underwhelmed. I vaguely remembered meeting Gerulaitis in the early 1980's, as an over made-up fourteen year old art student at a party hosted at Studio 54. He was, bland, unremarkable. The tennis star appeared to be wasted on some substance. He was giggling and wiping his nose on the sleeve of a bespoke Brioni shirt.

Everybody was in the club for either drugs or sex, or both. The former tennis star and I were introduced by a Scandinavian airline pilot acquaintance who lost his left arm as a teenage daredevil in an air show. The pilot had a mild crush on me. I'm sure because it was my habit at the time, I tried to be charming and make polite conversation with the tennis star about a game I knew nothing about, had no interest in.

The elderly woman's voice broke into my memories, "When my nephew died, it killed my sister. She never recovered. We had to put her in a Lithuanian resort for the mentally fragile, thinking she'd be there only for a few weeks, but she died there eventually. She died with my nephew." Then and there I kept my mouth shut about almost having been pimped out to her nephew as an under-aged Lolita in an upper middle class coke den.

She swerved her tiny body around to face another photo on her gallery wall of a sepia-tinged 1940's looking brunette with sweet Eastern European fat padding her jaw. Unlike Grace, the woman in the picture is not smiling. "This is me, after the Second World War. I had this photo taken at a camp. It was not a concentration camp, it was a good camp. I made my own clothes for the picture" She paused and smiled. "We were special people. My father was very handsome and smart, he was the Chief of Police in Lithuania during the war.”

Was I hearing this correctly? She rattled on, and her lips moved, but I didn't hear anything. I was fucking disturbed. Was she bragging about her father being a Nazi collaborator? The dates matched up. Constantin paid for the fish and we left in a daze. For good measure, on our way out I grabbed the half smoked joint on the back porch and stuffed it in the pocket of my Levi cutoffs.

What was I supposed to do anyway - call the Simon Wiesenthal Center when I got back to my cabin? I actually did the next best thing, Googled the old lady’s nephew. Within 4 links and 15 minutes I had a Jewish Daily article from May 29th 1980. The head of Lithuanian police, now deceased, the man called “one of the five most important Nazi war criminals in the United States” was evidently living his life happily amongst the liberal hippie residents of Bearsville, NY. Camouflage was easy, all he needed to fit in was a peace sign bumper sticker on his pickup and a small herb garden.

Turns out, I was going to need the entire smoke.

Blogger RWordplay said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 8, 2013 at 8:53 PM  
Blogger RWordplay said...

The Jews suffered terribly in Lithuania, more than 90% of the Jewish population was murdered, which is to say the entire community was virtually annihilated. I don't think that Antisemitism was more prevalent there than in other Eastern European country, but rather that the "government" cooperated with the Nazis, whom the people initially saw as liberators from the criminal and homicidal Soviet occupiers——who worked,in the early days of the war, to destroy the Lithuanian Republic, and create a Lithuanian Soviet Socialist slave state.

Certainly the enthusiasm for genocide of those who joined with the Nazi invaders can not in anyway be justified, but one can seek to understand it. A proud, ancient, people, reduced to pawns of German/Soviet Realpolitik, which is to say, all were equally damned.

That said, a history of humiliation by the Russians, during the 19th Century, would have been amplified by Stalin's 20th-century ruthless manipulations as well as various crimes against humanity, would have left a surviving minority, i.e., the Jews defenseless, particularly as Lithuanian, as I said above, initially saw the Germans as saviors.

So, it is in this context, that you and Mr. Boym found "sumptuous smoked trout and salmon, plus jars of locally made honey," in this most unlikely place.

I suspect that in hidden corners of America there are any number of criminals, i.e., participants in the Witness Protection Programs, along with specialists who did our dirty work in South America, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.

In the end, the old woman's father's was a victim too, or the man possessed an incredible instinct for survival. After all, the Soviets killed as many Lithuanians as the Nazis murdered Jews. It was a terrible time and people of every kind, including Jews, made their deals with the Devil.

With this in mind, the important thing is not history, but that while you may inherit "milk and honey," for now be content with smoked fish and honey.

August 8, 2013 at 10:59 PM  

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