My breasts were the biggest of all my teenaged girlfriends. That meant I was the logical choice to buy the wine and cigarettes, the adolescent assumption being that large breasts correlated with fooling people about my age.
I wasn’t convinced the unruly mountains newly risen on my chest would work for the purpose of illegal wine purchase but I was game to try. From our paper routes and babysitting, we’d pooled enough money for two bottles and one pack.
The smokes were the easy part, and more of a tactical flourish in the plan to present me as a wine-drinking sophisticate. Anyone could buy cigarettes back then. Parents often sent their kids to the corner store to pick up a pack. But the wine, that was a different story.
After school, I walked into the store – boobs at the ready – while Tammy, Rose and Jennifer waited in the alley a block away. We picked the small corner store because it was far enough from our homes that we were unlikely to be surprised by friends of our parents, plus the owners seemed like pushovers. Their English was not great and I talked fast.
I knew this about their English because a few years earlier, I tripped on the concrete stairs in front of their store and landed hard on my chin. The elderly couple that owned the store rushed out, fluttering around as I pooled blood on sidewalk. They spoke a language I did not recognize. My mother told them not to worry, it was a small thing, and she took me to the emergency room to get stitched up. German, she said later, they were speaking German.
DGS, it was called. District Grocery Store. I was the only person in the store that afternoon. I felt the proprietors watching me. The owners were an oddity in our middle-class blue-collar neighborhood. No one knew them very well. They were not particularly friendly to anyone, but not unfriendly either. They kept to themselves. I knew them only as Mr. and Mrs. Moskowitz. I assumed my new breasts would make me unrecognizable as the little girl from the chin-bleeding incident.
The wooden floors were ground down to a worn out shine. Shelving was crammed together and overflowing with Wonder bread, Twinkies, Jiffy, Sanka and Corn Flakes. So much food, like preparing for a war or a famine or something, I thought. I found the cold storage where Rose said the wine would be (she had completed reconnaissance the day before) — in a shadowy back corner next to the butcher counter with mounds of ground hamburger, rows of headless chickens and an unfamiliar orange fish splayed out in gutted filets.
We had decided on Ripple wine. Cheap with a screw-off top.
The old woman gave me a sideways jolting stare as I placed the two bottles on the counter next to the cash register. I kept my cool, casually asking for a pack of Marlboros. I pushed out my chest a little.
Her face was a carnival of wrinkles, and her hair was pulled back in an indifferent bun, gray strands poking out beneath the net. She wore no make up. The balding husband stood behind her wiping his hands on a bloody butcher apron. They were the same height, very thin, and their expressions inscrutable to me.
As Mr. Moskowitz pulled off the apron, his sleeve drew up, and a flash of black markings etched on to his forearm swept by. He then walked silently over to the staircase that led to the small apartment where they lived above the store, his footsteps drumming into a slow silence. What was that on his arm, I wondered.
Mrs. Moskowitz reached up to grab the Marlboro pack from the cigarette rack. Under her outstretched arm, on the paper-thin skin there, I saw a similar marking. Without thinking, I leaned in noticeably. Faded numbers. 160240. She watched me looking at the markings.
We had just finished a unit on World War II at school the week before. Realizing that this woman and her husband had come to this country as refugees from a Nazi death camp changed everything in an instant. And suddenly, my plan to deceive her seemed very wrong.
My adolescent mind reeled. Looking back, I think I understood for the first time, in a flash of insight, that no matter a person’s unremarkable appearance or situation, everyone had a life story of consequence, and this story floored me.
She placed the pack on the counter.
“Are you old enough to buy the wine?” she asked, her accent heavy.
Her voice was tired and flat, and I saw in the way she looked at me that she didn’t really care if I was old enough. But she had to ask. Perhaps after escaping from that kind of horror, seeing what humans could do to each other, the illegality of a little girl with disproportionally large breasts buying fortified wine could not possibly matter. In the grand scheme of things, what difference did it make?
“Are you old enough?” she asked again.
Tammy, Rose and Jennifer were waiting. I had to come back with the wine.
I unconsciously touched the scar on my chin.
“I’m buying it for my mother,” I said.
I don’t know why I changed the lie itself instead of not lying at all. I suppose I expected her to say my mother would have to come in herself, I wanted her to rescue me.
But she didn’t. Instead, she nodded and rang up the wine. I gave her a five-dollar bill, and she made change. Later, behind the swings at the neighborhood playground, after I drank too much of the Ripple wine and chain-smoked four cigarettes in a row, I vomited a little. But I also felt a inkling of pride, albeit youthful and unfiltered, that my town was a place of sanctuary for the Moskowitz couple.
Decades have passed. But not too long ago, I went back to the site of the DGS store. It’s long gone, replaced by an Italian restaurant.
I suppose this dusty memory from so long ago has popped unbidden into my consciousness now due to the ongoing national conversation — if we can call it that — on immigration and refugees. The same pride of country that was nurtured in that moment has been battered and stretched and squeezed over the years, but it is still there. This evening, as I transcribe the memory from an adult perch, I now wonder how many of the Moskowitz's friends and family were left behind, denied entry into the country, and who likely died because of the refugee policy in that moment of world horror.
Tonight, I'm also drinking red wine, but of a much better vintage than Ripple. It helps the words flow. As I finish up, I want to raise my glass to a world that has learned its lessons about fear and hatred, but that toast feels stubbornly premature.
Contributed by Kathleen McFall