By Erika Dreifus
Luiz bowed. “A final token of my esteem, Don Alfred.”
Alfred couldn’t help chuckling as he accepted the cigar. In truth, he rather enjoyed being the object of such a gesture, however absurd it might seem to the crowd at the Bar-Café Copacabana. It cheered him at the end of the afternoon. The end of watching the beach soccer, and the women. The end of the ice cold beer—chope, they called it here—and of the Coronas that Luiz, who was called in to roll them whenever a regular fell sick, shared so generously. But tomorrow was another day. Or so that lovely actress had realized at the end of the American film he’d seen a month or so ago.
Luiz straightened. “Remember, my friend, it is Lourdes’ birthday next week.”
“I have everything arranged.” Alfred hoped he’d struck the right tone, jovial and indignant at once, for of course he had forgotten the matter entirely. “Your sister will have a fine celebration.” He bit off the end of the cigar and spat it to the side.
Luiz smiled and struck a match. Alfred watched as his friend lit one cigar, then the other, then extinguished the small flame. They shook hands.
The cigar lasted the walk home. Alfred plodded inside the building on rua Alice and flicked away the final ashes. Most days, it wasn’t worth checking the metal mailbox marked “A. Haguenauer.” Just bills, or something misplaced, meant for a neighbor. But he’d spent his last centavos on the beer today. If only the check would come a day or two early this month! It had turned out to be a blessing, that accident with the municipal truck four years ago. Why should he now inform the Government that the irritating bamboo cane never left the closet where he’d thrown it the day they settled into this apartment? Or that a good chunk of the money nearly always went to one or another of Rio’s casinos, where, he reminded Lourdes when she protested, it had doubled or tripled itself, on occasion. He passed a handkerchief under the brim of his hat, then stuffed the linen back in his pocket.
He reached into the mailbox. Something lay flat on the cool bottom surface. He gripped an envelope between his thumb and forefinger and pulled it out. A letter. From—Edith?
He hadn’t seen her controlled handwriting for nearly a decade. He closed the box’s small door and pushed his eyeglasses up. Look at all of those forwarding stamps. Little Sister would be that lucky, having the bureaucracy work for her, for surely she had written only to ask him a favor. He smiled. You could say this much about Edith: She knew that favors had their price.
Well, she could wait a little longer. He trudged upstairs to the fourth-floor apartment they’d moved into last year. Lourdes had insisted they could no longer live in a single room, no matter the cost. “I don’t ask you for much,” she’d said.
He pushed open the apartment door. The smell of beans simmering in the kitchen made him hungry. At the window, Lourdes was reeling in shirts and sheets from the clothesline, talking all the while with one of her sisters, who was folding laundry beside her. Cristina? Ana? Lourdes had so many sisters that he had never been able to distinguish among them. Whichever she was, she looked at him briefly, quickly whispered something in Lourdes’ ear, and, nodding to him on her way out, left.
Lourdes checked the pot, then came over and kissed his cheek. “Did you see my baby brother today?”
He waved the letter. “This just came from Europe. I want to read it now.”
She blinked. He watched as her café-au-lait hands, those magical hands that knew both how to soothe and how to excite, retied the cotton scrap she used to pull back her hair. She gathered the folded laundry and marched into the other room.
He sank into his chair and tore the envelope open. What fine, ivory-colored stationery. Only the best for Little Sister. Madame Edith Lerner, he read at the top. 155, Promenade des Anglais, Nice, France. Why wasn’t he surprised?
Before I reveal the immediate reason for this letter, Alfred, her message began. I must inform you of some very sad news. Our Mother passed away last year, shortly before the war began. She had been ill for many months and everyone—including Oskar, and you must remember what a good doctor he is and how close he and Papa have always been—agreed in the end that it was a blessing for her to leave us.
A roar rasped through his throat. Why hadn’t the little bitch tried to find him? Had he known Mother was so dangerously ill, he would have been on the first boat back to Germany! Well, maybe. Anyway, Edith hadn’t loved Mother. More important, Mother hadn’t loved Edith. Not the way she’d loved him. He cried out again, but Lourdes didn’t respond. “Like a child,” she often reproved in Portuguese, pressing her cool hand against his face. She no longer abandoned the laundry, or the stove, or the dustpan to investigate his storms.
Papa remains at home, while I am living temporarily in France with my husband and our three children. I will assume that, despite the distance, you are aware of what is happening in Europe, even beyond the war. Yes, he was aware. Sort of. He didn’t bother to read the newspaper every day. This much was clear: It wasn’t a particularly good time to be a Jew on that continent. Even if, like the Haguenauers, you weren’t necessarily observant.
We have tried to obtain visas for Papa to come to France and accompany us to America, to no avail, yet. Although I try to conceal my own discouragement in my letters to him, I am certain that Papa cannot be optimistic. Our visas to America will soon expire, and my husband fears that it will be too difficult for us to reach New York before long. I beg you, Alfred, to do what you can to obtain a visa for Papa and help us arrange for his travel to Rio. Whatever happened in the past is irrelevant. PLEASE help NOW.
My husband says that it will be easier for Papa to get to New York from Rio than from Europe. So you needn’t worry that caring for Papa will forever remain your responsibility.
Please, Alfred, respond as quickly as you can.
A house on the Promenade des Anglais. Five visas to America. How well she must have married. Lerner, Lerner, Lerner. Alfred recalled, vaguely, a breakfast at home on Ifflenstrasse, near the end. His father had mentioned a Lerner, from Vienna, a very wealthy man who wanted to send his brilliant young son to see the Haguenauer factories outside Frankfurt. How hopeful Max had sounded. No one could miss the longing in his voice, the faint envy of this stranger in Vienna with such a promising son. He smiled again. It must be killing her.
The fact that he even had a sister hadn’t come up here in Rio until last year, and even then, he hadn’t volunteered the information. Lourdes was asking questions.
“Did you ever like her?” Her cocoa-colored eyes had been wide and puzzled.
Had he ever liked Edith? He didn’t think so, and his memory was fairly reliable where she was concerned, for he had already turned six when she arrived. At first, he’d believed her presence to be merely temporary. Surely, she, too, would soon disappear into a wood box and vanish beneath the ground. Just like the tiny girl who came before, the one he’d been instructed to call Mina—a name that for a long time made Mother weep. It was another situation entirely when when he finally understood that this newer baby wasn’t going anywhere, was in fact getting bigger and stronger, and crawling, and bouncing and laughing on Papa’s lap. Still, their cousins and playmates had no right to taunt or attack her. That was his privilege. But it wasn’t always worth the price.
“You are the older one. You should know better. You must not treat your sister that way. Or any girl,” his father inevitably pronounced before the whippings in the cellar, and at the mealtimes when Alfred was forced to stare at an empty plate, and all the other occasions when punishments came his way.
“You must learn to be more responsible, Alfred,” his father always said. “How else can you run The Business when you grow up?”
How Alfred loathed The Business. Whenever Max wasn’t physically present at the factories, he was talking about the factories. Was it Alfred’s fault if he preferred more entertaining pursuits? Alfred could see his father withdraw, start to search for a successor elsewhere. And Mother gazed at him with pained brown eyes that Alfred found increasingly difficult to meet.
Especially that day nearly a decade earlier, when he explained it all, confiding his plan to escape. To leave Germany for someplace far, far away. “I had to take the money, Mother. You don’t know the kinds of people who are looking for me.” His bowels threatened to loosen just thinking about the debts he owed, and the consequences.
“Your father would have helped you,” she insisted. “You didn’t need to steal from The Business.”
He sighed. “You just don’t know these men, Mother. It’s much better this way. Really, there’s no choice.” He swallowed, hard.
Mother had unlocked a desk drawer and filled an envelope with bills. “Take these, too.” She folded the money into his hands and kissed his cheek. Then, with the pressure of a last squeeze on his fingers, she left the room. She didn’t look back.
So the answer he gave Lourdes was no, there was never any love lost between him and Edith. Only Mother had understood him. Until Lourdes, who wanted nothing but to be a mother herself.
He rubbed his eyes as the memories of the preceding year came back. “We’ll have a daughter and name her ‘Nelly,’” he had proclaimed all those months, and watched Lourdes stroke her stomach and smile every time. Only at the end, on their way to the Hospital da Beneficência Portuguesa, had she asked about a boy’s name.
“If it’s a son, you can name him,” he’d answered, the generosity easing his regret over the ordeal she was about to face. “Or we can name him for your brother.” After all, without Luiz to introduce them, there would have been no baby at all. And after the stillbirth, when the nurse told them that a name was needed for the death certificate, Luiz was what Lourdes chose.
But naturally, Edith had three children, in perfect health, no doubt, playing beneath the Mediterranean sun.
The Promenade des Anglais. A far cry from this room, the cracked table and stained sofa cushions, the ceiling fan that barely worked, the dust that conquered Lourdes’ most valiant efforts. Edith must be in agony, imagining the surroundings for which her darling Papa was destined in Rio. If the pain became too great, might she even be moved to contribute sums with the hope of improving Max’s living conditions?
Alfred hoisted himself from his chair. “You eat too much,” Lourdes told him frequently, usually while she was lifting forkfuls of steaming pork and rice to her own mouth. Luiz swore that when she was a teenager, his sister had been slender as a model. Since the baby, she hadn’t seemed to care how she looked at all, hadn’t tried to lose the weight. In fact, she’d seemed to have gained even more.
In the kitchen alcove Alfred plunged his hands into the mesh sack Lourdes always used when she went to the food and flower market. He rummaged through the thick-peeled citrus fruits, overripe bananas, soil-spotted carrots. But where was his chocolate?
Well, that could wait. What he really needed right now was a pen. But a pencil would do. He found one lodged inside the notebook Lourdes had bought back when they were expecting the baby. In case there was any advice that she wanted to be sure to remember.
He opened the notebook. He struggled with the pencil. It was so easy to hold a cigar, two fingers on top, his thumb beneath. Why did his fingers fight the pencil?
Edith was probably overreacting. Sure, life had never been easy for the Jews. How many times had Mother told him of her first trip to Paris, just when Captain Dreyfus had been convicted of treason? In the end, Dreyfus had returned home and been pardoned, so it all worked out. It would probably work out again. But if Edith wanted to pay the price for her worries, he was more than ready to accommodate her:
My very dearest sister:
I do thank you for doing me the courtesy of informing me about our Mother’s passing. Now it appears that you need some help with other matters?
You say that your plans have not worked out. If you, doubtless connected to everyone in the beau monde, cannot help him, what makes you think that I can? And how shall I pay for a ticket? We don’t all live on the Promenade des Anglais, you know. I suppose I can try to work on a visa. But I can’t do anything until I have the means.
When Edith’s response arrived, weeks later, he could see the anger in the sharp pen strokes. But what could she do? She needed him. Her husband had wired a large sum to Rio, she wrote. Had Alfred started the visa process? Had he even investigated ships? She knew someone whose parents had left from Hamburg, on the Mauá.
Alfred must understand that Papa wasn’t well, she wrote. Surely you remember Oskar’s medical skills? Surely he did. What a quack. Oskar insists that Papa continue treatment for his emphysema in Rio. Can you locate a good doctor? She wanted, she said, to be able to tell Max what to expect in one letter, to give him all the details together once she had them. Naturally. She would delay torturing her precious Papa with the news of his imminent immigration to Brazil until the last moment.
He reread the line about her husband’s money and smiled. Then he dropped the letter and watched it flutter to the floor. “Put on your best dress,” he called to Lourdes, as if she had a wardrobe full of them. “We’re going out to dine.”
Copyright © Erika Dreifus 2012