Surreal vegetables, acerbic wits, leering gargoyles, uncertain Jews, loops of pearls, honking bluntness, eldritch creatures, sticky rugelach, The Twilight Zone, hissing grandmothers, biblical horrors & the Holland Tunnel.
Stop him if you’ve heard this one before. A Jew and a German ooh and ahh over surreal vegetables in Chinatown, wooden crates piled high with tentacled tubers, and then they dine in Little Italy, where they spot some mutant descendant of the South American capybara.
This is what Henry thinks when he and Lottie spy a rat as big as a housecat crossing the street as they leave the café. It’s more a setup to a joke than a statement about the beautiful melting pot that is New York City, but, as an aspiring comedian, Henry looks for the joke in everything. He usually finds dangling setups with no punchline and nowhere to go, or a decent punchline and no way to get there. How can he joke about a Jew and a German when he really can’t call himself that, has never before called himself that, knows next to nothing about it since both his mother and grandmother eschewed organized religion with the exception of Hanukkah and kosher groceries, and isn’t even sure if Lottie knows he is one?
The rat sighting reminds him of the angels, and he briefly wonders if he should tell Lottie about them, but he decides to wait until after they get off the subway and are surrounded by streetlights, only a few blocks away from her apartment.
As a child, Henry wasn’t allowed to ride the subway alone. The first time his grandmother took him on the train, it was out of necessity, to visit an elderly Russian couple of some distant relation. The subway was nearly the exact same age as his grandmother, a first-generation American herself, born in the early 1900s along with that first underground line. The station was full of movement, like grocery shopping at Fairway, that absolute madhouse of a store, but a hundred times more insane. Henry developed a fear of doors sliding shut on an appendage, or closing with either himself or his grandmother still on the platform, the other helplessly looking through the glass as the train pulled away and rabbity creatures scampered over tracks in the dark. The air was hot and smelled like the laundry room in their building, a colorless cinderblock basement full of cockroaches lying on their backs.
In that laundry room, he once leaned down to peer at a supine roach.
“Don’t get near it!” All at once his grandmother was there, stooping, thrusting the hamper between his face and the pest, like a weapon. “It could spring up at you,” she scolded, even when he protested that it was dead. She was ancient and incomprehensible, eyes fierce. She’d almost hissed the words.
Years later, over dinner in Little Italy, he tells Lottie about the cockroach and his grandmother’s instinctive suspicion of them.
You made friends by what Henry thought of as playing the Long Game: days of casual hellos, weeks of small talk, months of questions about shared interests, all this wishy-washy shuffling around, hesitating until he was practically doing a soft-shoe by the time he delivered invitations of his own.
“It’s because cockroaches can outlive nuclear war. They never die,” Lottie explains. She speaks English more fluently than he does, despite its status as her second language, and with minimal perceptible accent; if anything, she sounds vaguely Canadian. “It’s like that show, where the librarian survives the A-bomb.”
“I know this one. It was on the Twilight Zone.”
“And at the end, he’s sitting in post-apocalyptic rubble, about to read the books he loves. And just as he’s putting on his glasses—” She unhooks her own glasses from her ears, holding them an inch or so from her eyes, bringing them back slowly, slowly—“he realizes he’s really a cockroach, and cockroaches can’t read.”
Henry doesn’t reply right away. “I thought he broke his glasses.”
“Maybe the story was different in German.”
He met Lottie through a group of mutual theatre friends before he decided to pursue comedy, appearing in a small production of The Sandbox, a play that frightened and confused him in a way that suggested perhaps he might not be cut out for theatre. That meeting was not so different from tonight’s dinner: he sat across from the German-born girl at a table in a Manhattan diner. Within minutes, she told him, “I’m visiting Europe this summer. Have you been? We should go together.” Friendly enough, but it wasn’t a question. It delighted him. You made friends by what Henry thought of as playing the Long Game: days of casual hellos, weeks of small talk, months of questions about shared interests, all this wishy-washy shuffling around, hesitating until he was practically doing a soft-shoe by the time he delivered invitations of his own. Lottie did it in a matter of seconds. “We’ll go to Europe.”
The air was hot and smelled like the laundry room in their building, a colorless cinderblock basement full of cockroaches lying on their backs.
And they did. It was their first date. Lottie always stayed in hostels, carried one duffel bag on which she slept in train stations to prevent other drifters from swiping it. She fought off a man in Piccadilly Circus after midnight when he tried to grab the heavy end of her bag, her flat and rectangular laptop computer. Henry pictured her characteristically unbrushed hair flying out behind her, backlit by neon billboards as she whacked the mugger with her laptop. (Henry was waiting for her in a coffee bar at the time; she recounted the tale to him later.) The traveling drove him crazy. They never slept. He couldn’t even watch his hero, Letterman, to observe him at his desk back in New York and absorb tips on how to become acerbically funny.
And then Henry started to see the angels.
It was at a train station in an English town called Derby, but pronounced, according to the crackly voice on the intercom, “Darby.” And he assumed they must have been angels, because they weren’t animals—not the overgrown rats and alligators of the Manhattan sewers to which he was accustomed—but they also weren’t people. From his window seat on the aboveground train, in one direction Henry saw the safe and innocuous platform where women led bonnet-wearing children by the hand while wool-coated men tucked newspapers under their arms, and in the other direction he saw scores of near-derelict brick buildings with red chimneys, dirt and gravel and rusty tracks stretching out. Sepia-toned brick walls and little overpasses appeared every now and then, with funny little latched doors in them—some sort of service hatch, he assumed—and it was from one of these doors that he noticed the first of the angels reaching out.
The flutter of a wing, or a claw, shifting quick as a passing shadow into view as the small red door cracked open a fraction of an inch.
“Look at that,” he blurted, turning to elbow Lottie in the seat to his left. She raised her head from her book and looked.
“What?” The grey horizontal length of train platform reflected in the lenses of her glasses, and the train began abruptly to pull away. Henry turned back to his window, index finger extended to point, and of course saw nothing. No shadow, no wings—even the door itself was now entirely out of view. He lurched from his seat in shock when another train, moving much faster on a parallel track, exploded past the window with no warning, obliterating his view of the platform and overpass entirely.
Henry felt like William Shatner in that Twilight Zone episode where he’s on an airplane and swears there’s a man on the wing. But Henry didn’t want Lottie to give him the condescending and concerned stare that Shatner got from his long-suffering wife, so he let the matter drop. He supposed he could have mentioned the episode itself to her, but if the German version of the story had an even worse ending than Shatner being carted away while the wing went unseen by all, its metal panels all peeled up, he didn’t really want to know.
The map of the National Railway had city names like Runcorn, Crewe, Watford, Milton Keynes. Names that were somehow stately compared to the honking bluntness of the Bronx, Hell’s Kitchen, Flatbush—yet were themselves still blunt compared to the locales of France. On the Eurostar to Paris, there were no stops. From St. Pancras directly to Gare du Nord, a recorded female voice clear as a bell on the intercom instead of the cracking horror-movie voice that split words in odd places, a lightning-fast express train instead of one that rattled and jittered like it was made of Campbell’s soup cans.
A sudden coolness washed over him as their train entered the Chunnel, aka le tunnel sous la Manche. Under the English Channel, Henry looked out the window, of course seeing nothing. It was black as pitch, which perhaps was a mercy. What creatures lurked in the Strait of Dover, swimming beyond that barrier of tunnel?
He remembered the Holland Tunnel.
Henry pictured her characteristically unbrushed hair flying out behind her, backlit by neon billboards as she whacked the mugger with her laptop.
A sudden rush of childhood memory: the Derby angel was not the first he had seen. The true first he had blamed on the imagination of a child in a tunnel beneath the Hudson River.
In a car driven by your beatnik mother, who went to high school with both Simon and Garfunkel, singing along to a Paul Simon solo hit on the radio, lines about seeing angels in the architecture, amen, hallelujah. Your grandmother in the passenger seat, since she had refused to ever get a license, pursing her painted lips, her neck decorated with loops of pearls, saying nothing.
The cool off-white tiles lit, in the primordial dimness, by evenly spaced bulbs as you speed along. Those narrow elevated walkways on the side, thin railings separating them from the two-lane road, the occasional rectangular shape of a door appearing in the walls. Trucks and yellow cabs squeeze past your car in the parallel lane. Your heart races. The bulbs blip by too fast to see. You think the light flickers, but it’s just the blur of your own car’s movement. Those damp bathroom tiles surround you, cocoon you, much like the walls of subway stations. You don’t feel safe. It’s like in that movie, The Wiz, where the subway columns split free from the ceiling and come alive. You think one of those service doors on your left just cracked open a sliver, but it’s passed before you can take another breath. No use turning in your seat to look behind you; it’s already gone. The next door you see opens too, a reptilian claw curling around its edge, but then it’s gone as well, and you, a child in a tunnel beneath the Hudson River, must have imagined it.
At least the gargoyles leering down at him all over Paris were made of inanimate stone. They were almost reassuring, the sharp black angles of their horns and beaked maws all exactly what they appeared to be. Each time he craned his neck up at the foot of a cathedral, he saw them leering above him, but not at him, each one staring straight ahead. They would never do him harm.
Then Henry went inside and did the same neck-craning trick to see every inch of the unearthly beauty within Sainte-Chapelle. Lottie was right: the towering, bejeweled windows outclassed Notre Dame, yet Henry had never before heard the name Sainte-Chapelle. He used his camera in lieu of binoculars, zooming in on the riotous, crushed-rock-candy splendor of the stained glass before heading back outside to do the same to the gargoyles. Zooming in to see a grisly face and its wicked open-mouthed grin. A dark little imp guarding the stunning, almost excessive, 1,113 windows within.
He lurched from his seat in shock when another train, moving much faster on a parallel track, exploded past the window with no warning, obliterating his view of the platform and overpass entirely.
These were a tourist’s experiences, he knew. The real France might’ve been something different, something to be found only deep within the repeating cartoon backdrop that was the French countryside; from his view out the train window, every village they’d passed had seemed to contain the same orange house and one lone cathedral spire. But those towns were to be truly experienced only if you had friends or connections to stay with, people who actually lived and worked there. The only time he’d seen the French countryside rendered in actual cartoon form was in a Charlie Brown Halloween special, filled with murky purples, twilight skies bleeding watery blacks and blues. The dream sequences of early 1900s France somehow conveyed the eeriness of that season with just as much aplomb as the cartoon characters’ apple-bobbing party and neighborhood pumpkin patches. Snoopy crawled through the brush as the WWI flying ace, past deliciously ominous sunset skies and signs that read Châlons-sur-Marne. But in the moonlit night, the silhouetted Snoopy could be glimpsed in a few frames creeping past a small town just like those spied from Henry’s train window, with one lone, ancient cathedral spire scraping the watercolor sky.
Henry gazed up at the back of a carved gargoyle outside Sainte-Chapelle and could have sworn he’d seen that exact same set of multilayered wings unfolding from a latched door in a stone wall outside the window of a France-bound train, but of course he couldn’t be sure.
Lottie’s name was actually Charlotte, pronounced “Charlotta.” She introduced herself to everyone as Charlotte, pronounced “Charlotte.” She assumed, correctly, that few Americans would be able to reconcile the spelling with the true pronunciation. Henry had known her for three months before he learned her real first name. American Charlotte, he thought of her.
Lottie even introduced herself to his grandmother as American Charlotte, not German Charlotta, just before the Europe trip, when he led her to the apartment on the Upper West Side where he had grown up, and Lottie asked his grandmother about mitzvahs and rabbis and sitting shiva, questions Henry himself could not have answered. His grandmother fed her sticky rugelach from a plastic bakery container and told her about how Henry’s late grandfather had been an ambulance driver for the Allies in the Second World War. Lottie took it in stride, chewing a mouthful of dough and cinnamon with gusto, when his grandmother spoke of his grandfather’s collection of regalia, lifted from German soldiers, that now resided in the hall closet of the apartment. Nodding with interest, Lottie took another bite. Henry admired that; he had never much cared for rugelach.
Charles de Gaulle Airport, aka Roissy. Their last day in Europe. Outside fell that kind of light summer rain where you can still see the sun through the wool in the overcast sky. The terminal, where they waited in line at kiosks to check their bags, smelled like a sewer. No other travelers seemed aware of it.
Back in the London St. Pancras station, at the beginning of their journey to Paris, Henry had spied both a rat and a pigeon standing on the floor directly in front of a kiosk that displayed train timetables, both creatures facing the LCD screen. Look, Lottie, he had pointed out, fondly. Two New Yorkers late for their train. Hoping, as ever, to make her laugh.
Of course, Henry thought now, in Charles de Gaulle. They came from here. This is where it all began.
It was black as pitch, which perhaps was a mercy. What creatures lurked in the Strait of Dover, swimming beyond that barrier of tunnel?
The Old Country, his grandmother called it. He doesn’t know that much of his own history, his family’s past prior to Ellis Island now lost to time. Their lives began when his grandmother’s parents stood in that line watching men mark the backs of passengers’ jackets with chalk. No one seemed entirely sure what their original surname had been, a mystery that devolved into heated debates: No! That was the name of the town! His grandmother’s people came from Eastern Europe, and this was Western Europe, but it was still the closest he’d ever physically been to his own roots, whatever those may be.
So of course he saw the same things in Europe, those same forbidding angelic creatures. Something about those claws and wings he’d seen as a child had always been ancient and monstrously Lovecraftian—much older than New York or in fact the whole of America. The mutated goldfish and gators of Manhattan needed impatient and fussy twentieth-century children to flush them down to the sewers in order to come into being. Maybe these creatures from the Old Country hadn’t needed anyone. Or maybe they were the ancestors of those goldfish and rats.
Would he have found them in Germany, too? Lottie hadn’t taken him there, to show him her roots. He almost wished he had asked her to, but she had wanted adventure, liminal spaces like train stations and airports where borders ceased to be, not the sights and comforts of home.
Those damp bathroom tiles surround you, cocoon you, much like the walls of subway stations. You don’t feel safe.
The Holland Tunnel or the Chunnel, the New York City subway or the UK National Rail. It made no difference. Eldritch creatures in crumbling stone tunnels, beings that frolicked with the old gods, all descended from one place. Parisian gargoyles and Manhattan sewer rats sat elbow to elbow at the Last Supper of the myths and cryptids.
After he had this idea, he wanted to tell Lottie. But he decided to wait until after they were off the plane.
She took him all over Europe, and he repays the favor by taking her to the Central Park Zoo. The Sheep Meadow. The bronze Alice in Wonderland statue, scalding to the touch in the summer sun. Places that seem so small and trite, so young, compared to Sainte-Chapelle. But they’re his childhood. They’re the places Henry wants her to see.
Finally he takes her out to dinner in Little Italy, where they talk of cockroaches and librarians, of cabbages and kings, he adds, hoping for a giggle from her, but she doesn’t know the poem. Lottie orders a plate of spaghetti spicy enough to sear the roof of Henry’s mouth. As they leave the place, they see the housecat-sized rat, a first for Lottie. Henry tells her it’s her baptism into true New Yorkerhood. He remembers an old song about fleas the size of rats sucking on rats the size of cats, a song about a fictional dystopian future that might as well be describing some frightening biblical scene, or maybe New York City.
They ride the subway back to her place, where he now lives. It’s dark out now, but even darker in the tunnels when the artificial station light disappears behind their train. Henry feels his lids grow heavy, and Lottie notices, reaching over to cup the side of his head in her hand and lower it to her shoulder. Encouraging him to doze there. The first time he rode the subway alone, without his grandmother, he got lost in a station called Utica. Got off at the wrong stop, and no trains came for an hour. Squinting at subway maps on the off-white columns and sweating. Determined to find the right answer, the right train to take him to his true destination. Thinking he would be trapped here underground forever if he didn’t. Forgetting that the daylight of the aboveground world was just one turnstile and flight of stairs away.
Outside fell that kind of light summer rain where you can still see the sun through the wool in the overcast sky.
Lottie’s shoulder slips out from under him, and they get off at their stop. Shadows coil around tiled columns like smoke, concealing pointed teeth and beady eyes. Back in Lottie’s apartment, they watch TV in the living room. A luxury—in his grandmother’s apartment, there was a TV room, the only place a set was allowed. On the screen, David Letterman plays a viral amateur video of a rat dragging an entire slice of pizza down a set of subway stairs. It is both funny and reassuring to Henry. That rat ventured out in broad daylight, just to get dinner. Rats and celebrities, they’re just like us, Henry cracks to Lottie as they watch the late-night show on her couch, like he’s trying out a new punchline. Much like his grandmother, she doesn’t laugh, and she purses her lips.
Stop him if you’ve heard this one. A Jew and a German walk into a Chinatown marketplace. Except the Jew is only half-Jewish on his mother’s side, and the German has a better English vocabulary than he does. They hold hands and ooh and ahh at the raw fish laid across pallets on the ground, the one exposed beady eye of each fish following them as they walk from stall to stall. It sounds like a joke, he thinks, when he and Lottie step into any place in Manhattan—a Jew and a German go into Gristedes, Zabar’s, Dean & DeLuca. This is simply Henry’s life, and it doesn’t come with its own punchlines, but that’s where he comes in, or at least tries.
Maybe he will tell Lottie about the angels, one day. He should have asked his grandmother: what was it about manmade tunnels and tracks that was so alluring to the imagination? Did she ever mistake an overgrown rodent for a thing with fiery wings and unfolding tongues, some biblical horror with multi-paned eyes like stained-glass windows? Was that why she feared cockroaches and things that never die? But his grandmother, a woman of few words, never spoke of such wild things, and he never asked.
One day he will drive, with Lottie, through the Lincoln Tunnel.
Parisian gargoyles and Manhattan sewer rats sat elbow to elbow at the Last Supper of the myths and cryptids.
The cool tiles are lit by yellow bulbs in the primordial dimness. Satellite radio plays a recent Paul Simon tune in which he sings about questions for the angels, who believes in angels? You do not sing along, but you nod and smile as Simon answers his own question: fools do. Cabs muscle in on your car as they pass in the other lane. Your heart races, but you are not driving. The lightbulbs blip by too fast to see. You think the light flickers, but it’s probably just the blur of your own car’s movement. Simon now sings a few lines about empty trains in railroad stations—well, of course he would. Do you believe in angels? Even when you find yourself in a synagogue for the first time in your entire life, listening to a relative give a eulogy for your grandmother, you don’t have an answer. You sit in the passenger seat and look at your German girlfriend at the wheel, who stares straight ahead and purses her lips in concentration. You think one of those service doors in the wall just opened, but it’s already behind you before you can take another breath. The next door you see opens too, shapes like talons peeking out, but before your car can pass it, you smile, give it a wave. You, a foolish child in a tunnel beneath the Hudson River, see the joke of it all, and although there’s so much you don’t know, the mysteries of yourself and your own history and even the people you love, you know you are home.
C. C. Lewis won first prize for fiction in the 49th New Millennium Writing Awards of 2020 and Nimrod International Journal’s 2017 Francine Ringold Awards. Their work has also appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review, where they won second place in the 2016 Sudden Fiction contest. They have received honorable mentions from Glimmer Train and were a finalist for the North Carolina Literary Review’s Doris Betts Fiction Prize in 2017 and 2018. They currently live in western North Carolina.
Lead image: Madeleine Ragsdale