By Lester Gorn
Turning into the drive, the cab pulled up alongside the cars parked at the curb. The rear door opened, and the passenger stepped out into the cold dusk.He did not seem to hurry, but he completed his turn toward the hospital stairs before the car door slammed shut behind him. The flight bag swung from the man’s hand as he mounted the stairs to the main entrance. The people he passed were huddled inside their overcoats. He was wearing lightweight slacks, a loose sports shirt, a windbreaker and shoes that resembled moccasins. He tucked the flight bag close as he reached the revolving doors.
The lobby was vast and clean and brightly lighted. The man crossed to the information counter. “Deborah Cohen,” he said.
Fingers brushed the Apple III keyboard. “Fourth floor.”
Bypassing the waiting crowd at the elevators, the visitor strode to the side door marked Stairs. Pushing it open, he started up the first flight, taking the steps two at a time. He moved easily, but his appearance was deceptive. What looked like shadows on the rugged face actually were hollows. The decades had carved creases around his eyes and thinned his arms and legs. The thinness could not be concealed by the cut of the sports shirt or the fall of the slacks. The man was breathing hard by the time he reached the fourth floor.
At the nurses’ station, he again inquired about Deborah Cohen. The timbre of his voice made it carry. In the nearby lounge, a teenage girl looked up from her paperback. She covertly studied him as the nurse checked the charts.
“The patient is under sedation.” The nurse’s allotment of freckles upstaged her red hair. “If you wait in the lounge, we’ll let you know when she’s ready to receive visitors.”
“Is her condition still serious?”
The nurse hesitated. “Are you a relative?”
“No. A friend.”
“Really,” she said, “I’m not permitted to quantify.”
He nodded thanks, then moved on to the lounge where several visitors — anxious spouses or friends, likely — sat in molded chairs and watched reruns of As the World Turns on the television suspended overhead. Empty chairs were strewn with old magazines — Photoplay, TV Guide, Ladies’ Home Journal. The air smelled faintly of lilac and liniment.
He studied the girl bent over a paperback, whose long clean hair fanned her cheek. A pronounced jaw line sabotaged her delicate profile and made her look older than she’d seemed at first glance.
Eighteen or nineteen, probably. Denim skirt, white cotton blouse. The top two buttons of the blouse had been left unfastened, exposing the tops of her small breasts.
“Miss Cohen?” he said. “Naomi Cohen?”
She looked up from her paperback.
“I was supposed to meet your father here.”
“Oh? He’s at the coffee shop. Back any minute.” Now she looked at him with frank curiosity. “Do I know you from someplace?”
“No.” He smiled. “No extrasensory perception. It's just that you resemble your grandmother. The way she looked in her late twenties.”
Abruptly, she tensed. She scanned his close-cropped blond hair and the flight bag he carried. “In her late twenties,” she said slowly.
“Is that when you knew her?”
“I do know you from someplace, then.” The light, young voice took on an ugly undertone, exciting attention from others in the lounge. “You must be the infamous Mr. Smith. The skeleton in my family’s closet. I’ve heard you whispered about all my life.”
He tried to fend off the rancor. “It’s nice to be remembered.”
The witticism did not take. “You’re remembered, all right. Stories about you still crop up.” She paused. “How long has it been? Thirty-five years? How old was my father then? Twelve? Thirteen? Why would you want to talk with him? Or he with you?”
Although Smith’s mouth went tight, he held his calm. “Formidable,” he said, “that you can get so wrapped up in something that happened before you were born. Most teenagers think of the ’40s as ancient history — if they think of the ‘40s at all.”
"I'm not most teenagers."
"That's what I just said."
She flushed. “I wonder,” she said, “how you heard of Grandma’s illness. Did someone in the neighborhood notify you?”
“Obviously, Naomi, someone did.”
“Well,” Naomi said, “now you’ve learned you’re not wanted here, you can go back to your closet.” She seemed to relish chipping at Smith’s equanimity. “Or the coffin in your basement.”
“My house doesn’t have a basement.”
“Your attic, then. Nail it shut. You’re not wanted here.”
“A gift for invective. He closed his eyes. “Astonishing in one so young. If I close my eyes, I can hear your grandmother.” He opened his eyes. “When I open them, too.”
The television soap opera opera had lost its audience to the real-life conflict in the lounge. Now the diversion took a dramatic turn. Naomi’s father, in a tweed suit and a modestly striped tie, came down the corridor. As he caught sight of Naomi confronting the visitor, he stopped short. Neither Naomi nor the visitor noticed his arrival.
“Grandma won’t see you,” Naomi said.
“If she won’t, she won’t.”
“Why would she want to?”
“That’s for her to say, Naomi.”
“Don’t call me Naomi! I don’t know you. I don’t want to know you!”
The girl’s abuse of the visitor made David Cohen wince. It was evident he was unused to strife. Over the years, his flesh had been made sleek by love and health. Now he chose to overlook his daughter’s conduct. He threw his arms around the visitor. “Hank!”
“Good to see you again, Daveed.”
Although the endearment for ‘David’ enraged Naomi anew, she looked on in silence as her father backed off to take a look at the man he’d called Hank.
“The laid-back lifestyle in California!” David said. “You crowding sixty, me still in my forties, yet you get younger and thinner while I get older and heavier. Or, as Naomi puts it, fatter. How do you do it?” He gave Smith another hug. “How did you get here so fast?”
“I phoned the airline at a slack time.” Hank glanced at the Mickey Mouse wristwatch on his left wrist. “They had a cancellation.”
“Emma didn’t come?”
“‘Inappropriate,’ was the word she used. Ordered me to deliver two hugs instead.”
Naomi stared at father with incredulity. “I can’t believe it! You asked him to come! Not only that — you’ve been seeing him secretly all these years!” She raked David with a glare. “How can you be so disloyal? After he wrecked Grandma’s life!”
That David abhorred public spectacles did not prevent him from meeting one head on. “Seems to me, Naomi, you might have a gift for writing soap opera. Professor Smith didn’t wreck Grandmother’s life any more than Grandmother wrecked his.”
“That’s not the way I heard it.”
“Actually,” Smith said, “there’s some truth in the legend. And I’m the one mostly to blame.”
“Let’s divvy it up,” David said. “I’ll accept a demerit or two for an excess of secrecy. We were wrong to bury it all.” He twisted to face Naomi. “Hank here came along right after the war. I was still grieving for my father, even though it was close to three years since he’d been killed in action. Hank took me under his wing. A surrogate father and a damn good one.”
David turned back to Smith. “A trillion times I’ve begged you to visit. Now, at long last —abracadabra! — you appear.”
Smith grinned. “Smacks less of magic, David, than of soap opera. At a critical moment, the wanderer returns to the bedside of the woman he loves.”
“The woman you love!” Naomi burst out. “As though my Grandpa Ben doesn’t exist! What right do you have?”
Smith said, mildly, “Love requires no license, Naomi.”
“At your age!”
Smith turned back to David. “What’s your take on your mother’s condition?”
“Much improved.” David’s stiltedness alerted Smith to the need for circumspection. “We last talked to her at lunchtime. She’s a fighter. Not an ounce of quitter in her.”
Behind them, an elderly woman entered the hall, leaning heavily on a cane. Her every feature — cheeks, chin, torso — was oversized, but she’d been put together so neatly and cleanly that she seemed unimpaired by her infirmities. Spotting Smith, she waddled close and peered through bifocals at his face. “It’s you,” she said harshly.
She glowered. ‘“Hello, Tessie,’ he says. Cool like a cucumber. Like two chaverim meeting on the street. ‘Long time no see. How’s by you? The kids okay?’” She trembled. “Murderer!”
The word reverberated. The other visitors in the lounge, appalled, hastily rose and decamped. Activity in the nurses’ station came to an instant standstill.
Hank said: “How’s by you, Tessie? The kids okay?”
“Of murder he makes light.” Tessie shook her cane under his nose. “Have you no decency? To Debbie you’ve brought suffering enough. For why do you come here? Where do you get the chutzpah?”
“I’ve stayed away thirty-five years, Tess.”
“Stay away another thirty-five!”
“Now, Tessie . . . ,” David began.
“Don’t ‘now-Tessie’ me!” she retorted. “You want to forgive and forget? Be my guest! But include me out!”
The freckled nurse hurried into the lounge. “This is a hospital,” she said to Tessie. “I must ask you to keep your voice down.”
“So you asked me,” Tessie said, raising her voice an octave. “Now go back to work. Empty the bedpans in Ward Six.”
“If you persist,” the nurse said, “you’ll have to leave.”
“Scrub them out afterward,” Tessie said. “Boiling hot water.” She turned back to Hank. “It’s you who has to leave.”
“If Deborah asks me to leave, I’ll leave.”
“She asks it! My voice is Debbie’s voice! Who knows her better? Through and through.” Her chins shook. “Year after year I’ve held her hand, while you were drug-tripping in hot tubs and tickling girls with ostrich feathers or whatever it is they use out there. There’s nothing —not a single thought — she’s kept from me.”
“With all respect, Tessie,” Smith said, “there are certain depths in Deborah you cannot reach.”
“Depths, schmepths! Thirty-five years away, yet you see depths invisible to others. And what of Deborah’s husband? Where does he fit in?”
David said firmly: “Hank is here at my invitation, Tess.”
Tessie waved a deprecatory hand. “Uninvite him, then. Deborah doesn’t want to see him. Even prisoners aren’t force-fed.”
“There’ll be no force-feeding,” replied David. “It’ll be my mother’s call.”
Tessie slumped on her cane. A tremor claimed one hand. She moistened her lips. Then, she heavily turned and shuffled away.
Her departure made it easier for the badgered nurse to breathe. Recovering a modicum of her poise, she returned to her station.
“Murderer,” Naomi said to Smith. “Who did you murder?”
David intervened. “No one! Tessie and her crazy notions! Don’t listen!”
“What I heard,” Naomi said to Smith, “is that your real name is Heinrich Schmidt, and you were a Nazi soldier who somehow managed to get to the States right after the war. And that for some crazy reason you wound up in Brooklyn and passed yourself off as an Englishman and applied for a job at Cohen’s Clothing and Notions.”
“That’s largely true,” Smith said.
“Back off, Naomi,” David said. “Not here. Not now.”
“If not now, when?” She turned back to Smith. “Why Brooklyn? Why Cohen’s Clothing and Notions?”
“A fair question.” He took a deep breath. “The store — Jewish-owned — seemed to be in a struggle to survive. I thought I might help save it.”
She gaped at him. Then, slowly: “You thought you might save it.”
“Help save it. Yes.”
“How come? Are you in the rescue business? What’s ‘Jewish-owned’ got to do with it?”
David spoke up. “I think of Hank as a forerunner of the young Germans who went to the newborn Israel in the early ’50s, to work for a year or so in the kibbutzim. Expiation.”
Naomi gave her father what he recognized as her fondly tolerant look. “Far-out, Dad.
David grimaced; “Is contrition so hard for you to accept? It shouldn’t be. In truth, everyone has some darkness in him.”
“Comforting,” Naomi said. “That takes your pal off the hook. We’re all complicit. All alike.”
Smith did not rise to her bait. Instead he addressed her father. “I do not wish to be defended or excused, David.”
“What I’d still like to know,” Naomi said, “is why Tessie called you a murderer.”
“Simple,” David said. “To Tessie, every German is a Nazi and every Nazi is a murderer.”
“Overly inclusive,” Smith said, “but understandable.” Turning back to Naomi, he took the plunge. “Tess isn’t the only one who regards me as a murderer. Why? Because I was an SS officer.”
Naomi gasped. “The SS were uniformed thugs and murderers.”
A tremor cracked Smith’s voice. “Yes. Unequivocally. No exceptions for combat troops.”
In the newborn hush, footsteps in the corridor sounded thunderous.
Naomi fought for calm. “Are you suggesting that you didn’t know the death camps existed?”
“No. I knew.”
“And you did nothing?”
David intervened. “Enough! This is not a courtroom, Naomi. You are not a prosecutor!”
Naomi’s eyes remained fixed on Smith. “After the war, a lot of Nazi big wheels — mostly war criminals — escaped to Argentina. Is that how you were able to get here so fast?
“No.” He paused. “My escape wasn’t from Germany. I was already here in the States. I escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia.”
She gasped. “That makes no sense. Why would you want to escape a prisoner-of-war camp? The war was over.”
“Not for me. I flew the coop ten minutes after the SS sentenced me to death.”
The words were spoken quietly, undramatically, but they vibrated in the air.
Naomi, dumbfounded, eventually found her voice. “How could the SS ‘sentence’ you? You were in a camp run by the U.S. Army!”
He did not seem to hear her. “For some time, four of us had been suspected of disaffection, disloyalty and defeatism, but the long knives didn’t come out until we held a secret meeting in an out-of-the-way toolshed. There, by candlelight, we’d raised our right hands and solemnly renounced our vow of loyalty to the SS. Then we took a new vow: to fight for a democratic Fatherland as soon as we got home. Somehow, General Gunther, the P.O.W. who controlled the barracks, got wind of it.” He paused. “Straightaway, the first of us four defectors, a nineteen-year-old, was hustled into the latrine and beaten into a bloody lump.” A muscle pulsed in Smith’s cheek. “His SS comrades cut pieces off him before they strung him up.”
The silence was absolute. Then, Smith straightened. “I seem to have transformed myself into a victim, Naomi. That was not my intention.” Deliberately, he forged on. “I don’t think I need tell you this — but I’m ashamed of some of the things I did.”
Naomi revivified her prosecutorial bent. “Why did you do them, then?”
“Yes. The standard excuse. I obeyed orders.”
“Did that include killing civilians?”
Smith swallowed. “Yes. Once. A village in Poland. We were on a march when we stumbled into a nightmare. The Einsatzgruppen had moved in after we finished mopping up the town. They rounded up several hundred Jews. Because they were shorthanded, our battalion was asked to accept thirty of them.”
“The thirty. Were they all men?
He wet his lips. “Three women. Two boys.”
“And your part in this?”
“The firing squad.”
“You were ordered to be part of the firing squad?”
“To command it.”
“Did you give any thought to refusing?”
“You thought about refusing but decided to obey?”
“No more, Naomi!” David’s anger, fueled by anguish, ignited. “You’ve proved your case! Now let it go!”
A muscle pulsed in Smith’s temple. “The world’s verdict matches yours, Naomi. Guilty. And I accept that verdict, as I accepted it thirty-five years ago. Your grandmother, though, refused to concede. There were exceptions, she kept saying. Mitigating circumstances.” His voice steadied. “Social pressure won out. She was a committed Jew living in a Jewish neighborhood, and most of her friends were Jews. The love she shared with Heinrich Schmidt couldn’t stand up, over the long haul, to public revulsion.”
From somewhere down the corridor came the wail of a baby.
“That,” said Smith, “is why we parted.”
Naomi studied him. Her words came slowly, haltingly. One thing I’ll say for you, Professor. You do your damnedest to look into yourself, no matter the pain, and to tell what you believe to be the truth.”
Hank Smith stood at the lounge window with David, gazing out at the nighttime city.
“Over there,” David said. “The old neighborhood. See that solid line of amber lights? Commonwealth Avenue. God knows how it happened, but Commonwealth went upscale while other neighborhoods deteriorated. The breaks of the game, I guess. One fine day, the smart money — two or three developers — stood at a window like this one and decided to expand west. Then they set out to acquire parcels of cheap real estate along lower Commonwealth. To prevent the landlord from selling the building to them, Mother borrowed money and bought it herself. A year later, it tripled in value. Soon afterward, Cohen’s Clothing and Notions became Cohen’s Fine Apparel, and I learned how to spell chic.” He smiled. “Now I even know what it means.”
Naomi hurried toward them. “The nurse says she’s awake. We can go in now.” Although she addressed only David, her “we” seemed to include Smith.
As they filed into the room, it was evident that Deborah had recruited help to stage the reunion. The room was lighted by a single lamp on a table by the far wall. Deborah was sitting up in bed, propped by pillows. There was a touch of lipstick on the pale lips, a touch of rouge on the gaunt cheeks. The folds of her long-sleeved robe had been arranged with care.
But neither the dimness nor the robe could conceal Deborah’s condition. The body delineated by the blanket was the body of a girl. The robe delineated shrunken breasts and fragile arms. The feverish eyes seemed unnaturally large.
Draping their coats over a chair, David and Naomi bent in turn to kiss Deborah. Then Hank went to her side. He and Deborah gazed at each other. Aware of Naomi’s scrutiny, Smith made a heroic effort to hang onto his composure and blink back tears, but he was powerless to keep from reaching out. Deborah clasped his hand. She clung to it. “How’s California?” she said.
“Fair and warmer,” he said. “Coastal fog in the early morning.”
She smiled. “Is it true what they say? Does the sun really shine all the time?”
“Not only that,” he said. “Pink magnolias blossom round everybody’s door.”
Naomi said: “Must you two talk gibberish?”
“Dixie,” David said.
She gave him a baffled look.
“A popular song in the olden days,” David explained. “‘Is it true what they say about Dixie?’”
“David tells me,” Hank said to Deborah, “the store’s gone chic.”
“Not only that,” Deborah said. “Distingué.”
“Well and good,” Smith said, “but does the chic, distingué store offer super bargains, like the old one?”
“Bargains,” Deborah said, “are not in my lexicon. We’re not a store, we’re a shop. To attach a price tag is vulgar.”
Decisively, David shouldered past Hank to touch Deborah’s shoulder. “Talking business does you good,” he said. “You look better already. Naomi and I will be running along now so you can discuss profit margins and labor relations and suchlike.”
“But we just got here!” Naomi said. “You think it’s okay to leave her here alone?”
“I mean — “She broke off in confusion. “You know what I mean.”
“Yes, Naomi, I think it’s okay. Don’t you?”
She hesitated. Then: “Yeah, I guess so.”
“That settles it, then.”
David put his arm about his daughter's waist and nudged her toward the door. “See you both anon.”
Now at last they were alone. He pulled a chair to the bedside and sat down.
“How are you, Hank?” she said. “Any aches and pains?”
“None worth mentioning, Deborah.”
“I feel bad,” she said, “the way I look.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Pale lipstick never looked good on you.”
A smile broke through her pallor. “How did age sneak up on us, I wonder? It was only a couple years ago I was twenty-four.” She ran her fingers over the nap of the blanket. “The young are mixed up, too. It’s unthinkable that Grandma might once have harbored — may still harbor — wicked desires.”
“What’s acceptable, do you suppose? Passion? Ethereal longings?”
“Ethereal longings might qualify, but passion . . .? No. A thousand times no! Passion is beyond the utmost bound of thought.”
“‘Utmost bound of thought,’” he said.
“What Tennyson had in mind,” he said, “was Mountain Inn.”
Again she smiled. “Happy was the day.” The smile faded. “And you, Hank. David tells me your marriage is happy.”
“Yes. Happier now than it’s ever been, thanks to Emma. Infinite patience. She knew from the start what she was up against. First love.”
“Ours was not a first love, Hank.”
“Same battle flag. Sturdier fabric.” His head tilted in thought. “Some years ago, I read some letters Jack London wrote to the woman he later married. They don't read like Jack London. Downright sappy stuff. Odes to a goddess, full of purple moonglow. In the end, of course, London stopped worshipping at her altar.” His voice caught. “What we had, Deborah, has lasted thirty-five years.”
She was silent for a moment. “Emma must have been bothered from time to time.”
He nodded. “It passes. She refuses to indulge it for long.”
“Good for her.” She considered. “But why no children?”
“A wee complicated, Deborah. We decided to wait until after I earned my Ph.D. One of life’s mistakes. By the time I earned it, we decided we were too old to be parents. Another mistake. It’s astonishing how many mistakes we can chalk up in a lifetime.” He took her hand. “And you?”
“Two marriages, one divorce. An engineer. Good while it lasted. Four years.”
“Why did you divorce him, Deborah?”
“I didn’t,” Deborah said. “It was he who divorced me. After he found out I was having an affair, he did his damnedest to forgive me. He simply couldn’t manage it.”
“Sad,” Hank said.
“Worse. A farce. The affair, I mean. I mistook a peacock for a man.”
“Oy,” he said.
“Oy doubled in spades. But I’m lucky,” she reflected. “On the rebound, I might have married badly. Ben is thoughtful and kind, and he turned out to be a loving father to David. I’ve found it easy to love him.”
A nurse ducked her head through the half-open door. “Pretty near time to shoo you out, sir.”
The nurse withdrew.
He stood up. “I won’t wait to be shoo’ed out.”
“Not yet,” she said.
“You need rest, Deborah.”
“I need you more.”
“You’ve got me more.”
“Have I really?”
“Yep.” He bent down to kiss her.
Deborah’s thin arms came up to embrace him. “Tomorrow?”
He nodded. “Tomorrow and the next day and the next.”
“Always,” he said.
“Always is for children,” she said.
He looked at her. “For children and lovers,” he said.