September 18, 2005
by Frank Ephraim
This is a work of fiction.
The window of the pawnshop on Second Avenue had not been washed in a long time. Peeled black paint showed ridges of rust on the heavy iron frame that surrounded the window, and only the three globes hanging above the doorway appeared to have received any maintenance care. They glistened in the lamp-lit street like stacked cannonballs from another age.
Albert had walked by the shop many times during the last three months, but never stopped because he was usually in a hurry and besides, the cold weather of New York City in this winter of 1946 had a special bite that made him seek the warmth of Mrs. Levy’s flat. Even there, the radiators went cold after midnight and did not warm up again until six in the morning. But Mrs. Levy’s meals were generous and sometimes even tasty. The chicken soup, the slice of brisket, and the mashed potatoes were a delight every Friday night for Sabbath.
Tonight, his hands in his overcoat pockets, Albert slowed just a little as he approached the pawnshop. The crammed display included so many items, making it difficult to distinguish them, but there were small radios, a whole array of vicious-looking knives, and rows of wristwatches in shiny gold and silver. Albert kept walking, his hot breath vaporizing in the cold air as he lowered his chin into the turned-up collar of his overcoat.
The city with its millions of lights had hordes of people who rushed as if they all had a mission to accomplish. He climbed the 12 stone steps to Mrs. Levy’s flat and rang the doorbell. As he waited, Albert saw his reflection in the coated glass door panel. His dark eyebrows were aligned with the black beret that had, not so long ago, been part of his disguise. The mustache no longer decorated his upper lip, which in any case was overshadowed by his nose. But at least here the light blue eyes did not cause suspicion as they had on the streets of Madrid. He should have stayed in Barcelona where blue eyes might have enabled him to pass as a Catalan, but he had had to get to Lisbon because that was the only way out—and even that was taking a chance.
“You smell of a cold winter,” Mrs. Levy, her big body covered by a flower-patterned housecoat, said after she had opened the door. “Get ready to eat before the food gets cold.” She had a kindly voice, not threatening, but still emphatic like a mother hen.
“Good evening, Mrs. Levy,” said Albert. “I will just take off my coat and come back down immediately.” He gave his landlady a little bow as he spoke, but he no longer proffered his hand, a gesture that belonged to Europe, she had told him.
The boarders were all men. By now Albert knew their names: Andrew, who worked as a bookkeeper; Marcus, the shoe salesman; and Stephen, a goldsmith’s apprentice. They all considered Albert the most fortunate because he worked for a small importer of French wines. While he knew nothing about wine, Albert spoke French—not gladly, but it got him a job and that is what counted now.
Only Stephen sat at the table as Albert approached. The others came home much later—their work hours often lasted into the early evening—and they had to warm up their supper themselves. “Cold enough for you?” Stephen always spoke first. He was short and with a round freckled face. All of 18, he had completed an apprenticeship and now polished gold rings or watched a crucible melt gold scraps for reuse. He had talked about his job and the prissy goldsmith who tutored him so that he might become a journeyman. This evening, after his habitual gesture of sweeping the unruly red hair from his face with his long thin fingers, Stephen dropped his hand to the floor and came up with a bottle of beer.
“For you and me to share.” There was something triumphant in his smile.
“Oh, thank you, but the beer is yours and I...” But before Albert could finish, Stephen held a finger to his lips. “Not so loud, Mrs. Levy won't like it, drinking beer on Sabbath, but I am celebrating.”
Vaguely curious, Albert nodded his head, reached for the knife and fork, and began to eat, with the firm knowledge that Stephen was eager to tell him why.
“You know the pawnshop on Second Avenue?”
“Yes, I pass it every day.”
“Well, last month the pawnbroker brought in a very old pocketwatch. He told my boss that a man had pawned it a few days ago and showed us a dent in the gold casing. The pawnbroker asked if the watch could be repaired. He hoped to sell it at a high price because the watch was an antique and worth a lot of money—if the man did not return to reclaim it within 30 days. After he heard what it would cost to repair, he left saying he would think about it.”
A gold pocketwatch. That brought back painful memories, but Stephen’s voice interrupted Albert’s musings. “You know what?” Stephen paused and lowered his head. “The pawnbroker came back to our shop with the watch today, and the goldsmith gave it to me to fix. My first solo job.” Stephen poured beer into Albert’s water glass, then filled his own and lifted it. Albert did the same and in a subdued voice offered his congratulations.
Upstairs in his room Albert sat on the dark brown wooden chair and thumbed through yesterday’s newspaper. The New York Times was like a schoolbook for him because the many stories inside were the keys to learning not only the English language, but also the character and customs of Americans. From news to sports, Albert absorbed American life, and even the advertisements helped him understand his new country.
Tonight his eyes caught a full-page ad for watches and he started to read. He knew why. That did not take much analysis. The pawnbroker’s gold pocketwatch had ignited a spark that lit an image of the magnificent gold Breguet—grandfather’s pocketwatch that his own father had given him on his bar mitzvah.
Albert had not really used it very much, only on a few festive occasions when the gold chain and fob hung from his vest pocket. That was in Lyon, home of the Dargent family, of which Albert was the youngest child. The family name had been Silver until his great-grandfather had changed it to its French translation.
Albert’s hand instinctively touched the pocket on his grey vest. Of course there was no watch in it. The secondhand suit came from a nearby refugee aid organization but fit him quite well—well enough to wear to work. Albert laid the paper on the bed and let his head roll back. Streaks of dirty white showed through the grey ceiling, which merged, in his imagination, into an early afternoon dusk in the Les Brotteaux district of Lyon on that fateful Sunday of November 22, 1942, when, in the late afternoon, he had returned to his parents’ apartment. He could still hear the anxious voice of their neighbor.
“Albert, quick, come into our apartment,” the man had said, beckoning with his forefinger. “The Gestapo came and arrested your parents right after lunch. They allowed them to take only a small suitcase.”
Albert had been too stunned to reply and had just stared as if he had been looking into a chasm.
“You should not stay here,” his neighbor had continued. “They would have grabbed you as well.”
There was little point in asking where the Gestapo had taken his parents. The headquarters were in the Hotel Terminus, near the railway station—a place that he, as well as every resident of Lyon, now feared to enter.
Flight in the event of the Germans occupying the so-called Vichy zone of France had often been a subject of discussion at home. What to do when that happened. There had been talk of crossing the border to Spain and the difficulties that entailed. But now Albert was faced with a decision and there was little time to think. He raced back to his parents’ apartment, packed his rucksack, changed into his corduroy trousers, put on his sturdy walking shoes, and pulled a heavy sweater over his wool shirt. Then, from the very back of his desk drawer, he retrieved his bar mitzvah pocketwatch in its dark blue case.
A quick flip of the lid revealed the beautiful Breguet bedded in soft ivory-colored velvet. Albert snapped the lid shut and slipped the case into the inside pocket of his leather coat. He reached for a pair of gloves, grabbed his black beret, and locked the apartment door. He never looked back.
The scene in front of the Hotel Terminus had remained etched in his mind. In eerie silence several hundred Jews had been herded onto trucks. He had stopped across the street. His parents had stood in the truck. They had seen him, but showed no acknowledgment. His father had only turned his head from front to side very slowly several times as if to say “No, no, do not divulge that you know us, Albert.” His mother had covered her eyes.
Albert had felt as if he were in a trance and that he had seen himself from outside his own body. All he could remember was that he had stood there like a frozen image.
“Ticket, please.” The conductor had looked at him strangely, fully expecting that Albert had snuck aboard the train. But Albert had not and managed to produce a ticket—he had no recollection of having bought it nor of boarding the train. But now he had slowly regained his senses and had actually managed to smile at the conductor who had punched the ticket with a curt “Thank you.”
It had taken nearly a month to reach Lisbon after joining a group of refugees who had been led across the Pyrenees by a smuggler. The man had exacted a heavy price, but Albert had some money to contribute, and the gold Breguet pocketwatch remained sewn inside the lining of his leather coat. That had been until he reached Lisbon.
Help from the refugee committee had been limited to accommodation with a family and a little money for food, but the long lines at the American Legation took hours to move. A transit visa through the United States—good for a 30-day stay—was all he had been able to obtain, but that had been good enough for a booking on a Spanish freighter. And that is when the watch had to be sold to pay for the passage. There had been no other choice.
The nights were getting colder, and on his way home one evening the sight of the pawnshop sparked a desire to enter. Glad for the warmth of the store, Albert pretended to show an interest in several violins locked in a glass-enclosed showcase, but all the while he cast a glance at the counter where watches were displayed and where at this moment the pawnbroker stood talking to a customer, a youngish man with straight blond hair wearing a herringbone overcoat. Albert could overhear the conversation.
“A fine Swiss movement with 21 jewels, and just look at the design etched in back.”
“Yes, very nice, but too heavy.”
The pawnbroker hesitated for a second and then replied, “Well, I have another one, a magnificent piece just being polished in the workroom. Let me get it.”
The customer strolled toward the a display of cameras, and Albert edged closer to the watch counter. As he scanned the watches, he heard the pawnbroker talking, and seconds later he and Stephen appeared from behind the green door-curtain that separated the shop from the workroom behind it. Stephen had a satisfied look on his face, and Albert assumed that he had just delivered the repaired watch to the pawnbroker.
“Ah, here we...,” and the pawnbroker stopped abruptly as he spied Albert instead of his customer. “Where...?” Then he saw the man as he approached the watch counter. Stephen looked at Albert but hesitated to say anything until Albert smiled at him.
“I am interested in a pocketwatch, something inexpensive,” Albert blurted out.
“Show him some of the watches over there,” the pawnbroker said to Stephen and pointed to an adjacent counter. “You know which ones they are, I’m sure.”
“Do you really want to buy a pocketwatch?” Stephen knew Albert did not have much money.
“Can I just look?” Albert whispered, and Stephen replied with a wink.
“Also a Breguet, but a very unusual antique.” The sound of the word from the pawnbroker’s mouth struck Albert like a sack of bricks and he froze, not daring to look in that direction. He suddenly felt removed from the scene, just like when he saw his parents on the truck in front of the Hotel Terminus in Lyon. The image of his father slowly shaking his head appeared, as if forbidding Albert to even think about his bar mitzvah watch.
“A beautiful pocketwatch,” the customer said as he held the timepiece in his hand. Then very quietly he asked, “How much?”
“For you, let’s say $95.”
“Oh. Too...” The man’s voice grew faint.
“Well, we can talk about the price some more. Do you like it?”
“Yes, very much.”
Mrs. Levy brought in a pile of firewood, and Stephen showed Albert how to make a fire in the hearth. They sat and drank coffee, then Albert told Stephen about his Breguet and why he had made such a quick exit from the pawnbroker’s shop earlier in the evening.
“Funny thing, the pawnbroker mentioned that the man who brought it in to pawn had a Spanish accent,” Stephen said. “I could run over to the pawnbroker’s and ask him to look up the name on the receipt.”
“No, don’t bother, there are many Breguets around, it will only open old wounds.”
“The customer will probably return one of these days. I know, if they are really interested, they come back.”
The next evening Albert stopped to look into the window of the pawnshop. To his surprise, the Breguet had been placed smack in the middle of the display. The blue felt cushion the pawnbroker had placed under the bright gold timepiece brought out its beauty, and Albert could see the second hand make its jerky rounds. He kept staring at it as his brain recorded the image over and over until he almost convinced himself that he was looking at his bar mitzvah watch.
Then Albert stepped back and closed his eyes for a moment to bring back a sense of reality. The Breguet in the window was not his watch—such a coincidence would be absurd. But the recollection of that lost heirloom and its family history, and the memories that this vision aroused, made Albert wistful and he opened his eyes.
As he again looked into the shop window, Albert saw the face of a man standing next to him. The reflection was a little blurred because the window was dirty, but Albert could tell he was an older man and certainly not the customer he had seen in the shop several days earlier. Was the man next to him looking at the Breguet? Oh, probably just his imagination, there were so many things displayed in the crowded pawnshop window.
Albert shifted his eyes to have a quick glance of the man standing next to him. A worn gray hat with a black band, a large nose that seemed supported by a gray mustache. Something about the man made Albert begin to turn his head. Perhaps another refugee—there were so many in New York.
The man must have seen Albert’s head movement in the window and suddenly they were face to face. The quiver that began in Albert’s shoulders instantly exploded into a momentous gasp.
©2005, Frank Ephraim. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.View All Blog Posts