By Robert Cetlin
As usual Jacob arrived early. He had driven around the entire Disabilities Center, fifty flat acres dotted with wilted saplings and dull buildings. Most were one-story rectangles constructed of pitted, gray cement blocks. Some were camouflaged by flanking wings. Wooden posts signified units with fuzzy terms like “Pediatrics,” “Non-Ambulatory,” and “Cottages.” Scrubby foundation planting made the crude unfinished look of the place seem worse. Tamped under low gray clouds the drab barren landscape brought sickening memories to mind.
Sizing up a situation before settling in was a habit from another time and place. His life had then depended on avoiding the Ukrainian Nazi police and the SS bastards themselves. “Absurd, this is America,” his wife, Gertrude, chided when he seemed excessively wary. But she understood that his compulsive search for unlikely danger curbed anxiety. Like a nervous tic checked tension. At least she had until now.
His watch read 8:30. The second appointment with Mrs. Segovia, the social worker, to discuss Wilfred’s move to the Center, was at nine. At their first meeting, last week, she had looked back and forth from Jacob to Gertrude and furrowed her brow. “Your accents are — well, exotic, but different from one another’s,”she said. She was not the first to wonder about which department in heaven had made this match.
Gertrude was tall and shapely and her long red-tinted blonde hair was rolled loosely on top of her head. Her German-accented English was refined to soft precision.
Jacob was hardly exotic. A neighbor woman, after seeing the Broadway show, Fiddler On the Roof, had said to him, “You could be in the cast, a big bear of a Tevye, accent, clothes and all.”
Jacob pulls into the medical clinic parking lot and waits, alone. Gertrude had run out of their house last night and not returned. They had quarreled because Jacob had stubbornly insisted on keeping Wilfred at home. Today he would tell Mrs. Segovia a white lie: that he was keeping an open mind.
He becomes subconsciously aware of a man driving around the grounds on a tractor mowing machine. Now it seems clear that he has been circling and drawing closer. He rolls up beside Jacob’s car and stops. At close range he appears burly and odd, foreign, not American. Perhaps it is his heavy immobile facial features, his clumsy sprawl over the machine. He barely breaks a smile and speaks. “I say ‘Good morning’ to you.”
Jacob is startled. The man speaks with an accent: Polish, Ukrainian or maybe from one of the small Baltic states. “Good morning,” Jacob says.
The man smiles and nods vigorously.
“You seem delighted, but why?” Jacob says.
“Your accent. I hoped you would speak like that.”
“Like you might be from Trochenbrod.”
The clouds become darker and mist gathers in the air. Jacob opens all of the car windows and breathes deeply. The weather reminds him of the day the Nazis came to Trochenbrod, the shtetl in the Ukraine where his family lived for decades. They rounded up the Jews and sent them to various camps, a very organized bunch the Nazis were. Jacob, a big young shtarker, was sent to a work camp. There the Ukrainian guards starved and beat the prisoners and broke their spirits. It came to Jacob that he was different from the other Jewish prisoners because as a young man he had worked on farms among the goyim. He had learned Ukrainian and some Polish and Russian from the farmers and had bumped their heads together when he had to. He had a chance of surviving if he ran away. He worried though: if he were caught, the guards would torture him; if he escaped, the other prisoners would suffer. He mulled over this predicament for a few days and opened his eyes to a painful perspective: all of them were going to suffer and die and so he must try to escape.
The safest time would be after the early afternoon count. He would have several hours before he was discovered missing and then darkness would give him cover. He travelled east and avoided main roads. By the next morning he was miles away. For months he lived outdoors and travelled with partisans, trusting them only as much as he absolutely had to. He learned survival and killing with his bare hands.
Jacob looks at this apparition astride a tractor. What could he know about Jacob’s shtetl? He says, “So what if I am from Trochenbrod?”
“Then you might be the man I remember.”
“Pity him!” Jacob says and pulls off his round cap and thrusts his face forward.
The tractor man takes in Jacob’s bald pate and his narrow face barely roomy enough to contain a potato nose and a broad full mouth.
“So! Am I that man?” Jacob asks.
“Your small head and crowded face are like his. If you would step out of your car, please.”
Jacob opens the door and steps down.
“Yes, you are him or his doppelganger. He was big and rugged with large hands and feet like you.”
“How would you know such details?
“I had plenty of time to observe him while he slept.”
After the Russians chased the Germans west from Poland and the Ukraine, Jacob came out from hiding in the countryside and forests. He hadn’t seen any of his family since Trochenbrod and could only hope that any of them had survived. He walked for days to arrive at his shtetl. He had no notion of what to expect but was surprised anyway at what he found. He stood in the middle of Trochenbrod, shocked as he slowly became aware of where he was. Houses and buildings overgrown, looted, charred and destroyed. No people, but he imagined hearing familiar voices in the wind. He recognized the afternoon light and heavy sadness suffused him.
The tractor man extends his arm and says, “I am Novak.”
Jacob takes Novak’s hand and says, “I am Jacob.”
Novak says, “One afternoon, some years ago in the ruins of Trochenbrod, I saw you throw yourself to the ground and claw the dirt like a crazed dog. I saw you roll to and fro like a ball-bearing and heard you bay like a hyena most of the night. When the sun came up you were crouched over your knees, rocking and whimpering. Your head hit against a stone and it knocked you out. You slept awhile and seemed calm when you woke. Maybe the stone had bashed some sense into you. You marched off striding with seven league boots and swinging your arms like flags.”
Jacob is thunderstruck. This man, another human being, had witnessed his most abject desolation. His mind is topsy-turvy. His thoughts bump together and then reassemble. “I never noticed you,” he says.
“I remained out of sight. I had been on the run for a couple of years.”
Jacob contemplates Novak. “You’re not a Jew.”
“My father managed to be an idealist, a Communist and a fool. Only a Jew he wasn’t. But that’s another story. What brings you here to this repository for misfortune?”
“It’s a long miserable story.”
“For better or worse, even long miserable stories don’t take long to tell.”
“I would guess, Novak, that you are familiar with the word fussgeyer. That was me when I walked across Europe in the wake of the Russian Army. I found the cities of Germany bombed and shelled to rubble. I can’t say I felt sorry, although I could see even in their ruins that they had been more magnificent than I could have imagined.
“I came to Berlin and found an organization that was helping displaced Jews. I couldn’t find names of anyone from Trochenbrod on their lists and asked for help to go to America. Walking around one evening while I was waiting, I came on two drunken ‘Ivans’ trying to rape a woman, a violation inflicted by the tens of thousands. A German woman, I thought, and called to the Russian soldiers, “Good luck!” But when I heard her cry out I shouted at them to stop. They howled, “Your turn after us, Jew.” I tore them from her. They grabbed their rifles and came at me. I blacked out and remember only when I saw them on the ground, one moaning, and the other still. I clenched one rifle by the barrel. Its stock was shattered.
“I escorted the woman to her one room apartment and she invited me to stay. We lived like brother and sister for several months and we got along very well. Neither of us had family or friends anymore. Her husband had been a soldier killed on the Eastern Front. We were a most unlikely couple but I had never felt so comfortable with another person. I had terrible doubts and left but came back after a few weeks. We became lovers. I considered marrying her so she could come to America with me. How unlikely, how strange, how ironic I thought! But what were such attitudes worth after the unbelievable horrors?
“After a few years we had a son, Wilfred, but our blessing became a blight. He was born missing a chemical so he could not become a normal person. He made lots of noise but not real words. He had an odd smile that seemed more like a random grimace. He didn’t make eye contact and, if his gaze crossed yours by chance, the blank light-blue of his eyes reminded you of a frozen winter sky. It was a relief when his eyes moved on. He ate with his hands and put his fingers into the soup bowl.
“Wilfred grew big and strong but he was clumsy. He bumped into furniture and door frames. He seemed oblivious to pain and covered himself with bruises that prompted doctors and nurses to inquire suspiciously about abuse. He had spectacular temper tantrums when he gouged flesh from our arms with his fingernails.
“He never rode a bicycle and had to be coaxed into an automobile. Friends were out of the question. Even at eighteen years old he might not get to the toilet in time. If the doors and windows were not locked he wandered out of the house.
“One night the police called. The president of the state niversity had found Wilfred on the porch of his home, where he had been brought as a prank by some students who found him in a pizza parlor. Thank goodness nobody was hurt.
“For the first time Gertrude mentioned sending Wilfred to live here at the Disabilities Center. She said it would be only temporary. The Center was being shut down in a few years and all the residents would be transferred to homes in the community.
“Even so, Wilfred was my flesh and blood and all I had. I would not exist if I did not hug him every day.”
Novak grips Jacob’s shoulders and stares into Jacob’s eyes. He jiggles him gently
as if to confirm he has found his dearest lost friend. He smiles broadly and drives away on his tractor.
Jacob feels lightheaded and drifts into tranquility.
Mrs. Segovia offers Jacob a chair and gives him a cup of coffee. She says, “I was looking out of the window and mistakenly thought you were conversing with Novak, the man riding the mower. Our medical director, his cousin, brought him here from Europe. Poor man lost his family during the war and hasn’t spoken a word since. He seems deaf too, although that’s not certain.”
Copyright © Bob Celtin 2013