The Nazis, My Father and Me
By Robert H. Lieberman
The old man was alone with his grandson in the San Francisco apartment. Often, when he ventured away from New York for a visit to his son’s family, he found it difficult to connect with the boy. The twelve-year-old usually had his face plastered to a screen or an electronic game in his lap.
But today felt different. It was one of those rare instances when Lucas was unplugged. Perhaps the kid sensed something brewing in the old man. Without a word the boy slipped into the couch beside his grandfather and nuzzled up against him.
The old man pulled him tight. “You know, I’ve been thinking about something…” he ventured, “…someone.”
“Yeah?” Lucas looked up at him with his dark, serious eyes.
“About a boy I knew…” he went on, cautiously feeling his way. “He was about your age when it all began.”
“Now this is a bit of an involved tale. I don’t know if you can sit still long enough to…?”
“Of course I can, Grandpa,” Lucas objected vehemently. “I like it when you tell stories.”
“Well, this isn’t just a story. It’s a true account. Something only a few people in the world know about today. It’s been a big secret.”
“So why are you telling me?”
The kid was sharp.
“Hey, what am I? Eighty-three, going on eighty-four. Let’s face it, how much more time have I got left on this planet?”
“Lots, Grandpa, lots.”
“Look, I want to tell it before it’s too late. And, hey, maybe one day you can pass it on to your children— or grandchildren.
He now had the boy’s full attention.
“Okay. So this takes place a long time ago. Long before you were born. Even before your father was born.”
“Wow, that long ago?” the boy echoed.
“Yeah, but I think you’re finally old enough now to understand it.”
The morning fog had lifted and, turning to look out the window on Russian Hill, he could see the familiar red boats plowing the choppy waters of the bay as they ferried tourists to Alcatraz, commuters to and from Marin County.
The old man started coughing and kept clearing his throat while his grandson waited. Finally he closed his eyes, drew in a long, wheezy breath and began.
“Like I said, this all starts in another time. Really another world as far you’re concerned. It’s 1941. Late June. It’s Monday, the twenty-third, if you want to be precise. There’s a war raging in Europe, spreading like a plague, but America’s at peace with most folks still hoping that the country can just stay clear of the fighting. Now imagine you’re a thirteen-year-old boy named Stefan… You’re in New York City. Midtown Manhattan. Grand Central Station.” He shapes the scene in the air with his broad, liver-spotted hands. “People rushing to and fro. Got the picture?”
Lucas closed his eyes, paused for a moment, then nodded.
“Okay. This is where all the trouble begins, where a boy just about your age gets a chance to alter the course of history. I think I’ll let Stefan tell you his story,” he said with a wink.
* * *
* * *
Monday, June 23, 1941
It’s early evening and I’m waiting for my father at the newspaper stand just in front of Grand Central Station. I see him hurrying toward me with a huge green trunk. Vati’s knuckles are white from gripping the handle. In my whole life I don’t think I have ever seen him so jumpy. He’s generally so good at hiding his real feelings that people who meet Wolfgang Mayer always think of him as a happy-go-lucky, easygoing guy, a man with a thick shock of blond hair and a loud, ready laugh. Of course, I know him in a way that others don’t, can’t. Sometimes he’ll be smiling or cracking a joke but, if I look carefully, I can detect a faint twitch at the corners of his mouth that tell me big things are churning inside.
Living alone with Vati hasn’t always been smooth sailing. When I was little, life with Vati had been easy. Right after my Mutti died in Berlin, most everything I did was okay. In those days he never scolded me. At night he would lie in bed with me, his powerful arm encircling me, and in a soft voice tell me stories until I fall asleep. He was terribly lonely, missed my Mutti something awful. I knew this because sometimes, at the oddest moments, he’d start to cry quietly, hot tears streaking down his face. Then things changed. I’m not sure exactly when, but maybe it was around the time we came to America— I was eight then. A big boy.
Now Vati expects more and more from me, and trying to please him is like being an acrobat on a high wire. My report card was supposed to be all A’s, not my miserable C’s and D’s. He expects me to keep the house spotless and do the shopping but —no matter how hard I try— I’m always missing spots on the kitchen floor or buying the wrong kind of soap. He never raises his voice, but when he hisses at me, “Du verdammter Lümmel!” calling me a worthless lout, his voice is deafening.
So, to get back to the subject, I’m standing at the newspaper kiosk. It’s early afternoon. It’s been drizzling on and off all day and it feels awfully damp and cold for June. With my hands shoved deep into my pockets, I’m killing time, studying the covers of the magazines and comic books. Life Magazine has a picture on it of a sailor at a soda fountain. “British Sailor & First Soda.” There’s a new issue of Hercules, Modern Champion of Justice. There’s my favorite comic Archie. I love him and his friends. And his girlfriends. I sometimes have crazy daydreams about Veronica. She’s really beautiful with dark, silky hair. I’ll be sitting in the trolley thinking about Veronica and —bang— up will pop a boner, pushing so hard it feels like it’s going to drill a hole right through my fly. I’m afraid to get out of my seat, ashamed that everybody will see me and finally know the truth—that I’m turning into a genuine sex fiend. I keep thinking about the girls in my class, Louise Reiner, Diane Feldman, Gale Leibowitz— not that they would ever think about me, except when they look my way, whisper some secret and giggle like I’m some worthless twerp. But I keep thinking about them. Keep trying to imagine them naked. Or better, they are undressing and I’m watching them through a peephole. Twice I missed a stop on Jamaica Avenue and had to walk back almost a mile. Come to think of it, I think I like Archie and his friends because they are so relaxed, so American. I wonder if he and Jughead get constant boners like me? Maybe I should be seeing a doctor for treatment, but how could I tell Vati that I need medical care for this?
“Hey, you gonna buy it or you jus’ lookin’?” snaps a grouchy voice, catching me off guard.
I mumble something about maybe buying, but slip Archie back where he came from. Anyway, I don’t want to give the impression that comics are the only thing in my life. I don’t have a lot of friends (Hey, who are we kidding?) but I read a lot of books— though I hate school. Moby Dick. Tom Sawyer. Huck Finn. The Hardy Boys mysteries— I’ve read them all. So it’s books and then there are movies like Boys Town. I find Father Flanagan, the way he helps wayward boys, a real inspiration. Maybe I should do something worthwhile like that with my life, which is not exactly going anywhere.
It starts to sprinkle again. When we lived in Berlin, it never seemed to rain as often as it does here in America—not that I really remember so much.
I know. I know. I’m getting off the subject. I tend to do that. Which drives Vati berserk. “Concentrate!” he’s always snapping at me, but my mind keeps lurching off in a hundred directions, and scolding me just seems to make it worse— but tell that to him. I really wish somebody would.
Anyway, like I was saying, I turn around and there’s Vati, rushing out of the entrance lugging this big steamer trunk. His face is chalk white, his lips pulled in a tight line and his head keeps turning as he checks behind him. He’s out of breath when he drops the trunk at my feet.
“Ich komme bald zurück” he says puffing, his steel blue eyes jumping in their sockets. “I’ll be right back. Stay here, Stefan. Don’t move a centimeter! And whatever you do, don’t let this out of your hand. Verstehst?”
“Ja, ja,” I nod and, with that, Vati disappears back into the station.
I stand the trunk on end and clutch the metal handle.
Obediently, I wait for what seems to be minutes, but could be a lot less (I’ve been told that I have no sense of time). I whistle to myself, dance around the trunk (never daring to let go of the handle), until finally my curiosity gets the better of me. I pick up the trunk— it feels like it weighs a good ton— and drag it over close to the entrance. People are swishing in and out of the big doors, churning around me like a wild river. Through the crowd I suddenly spot Vati. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. He’s running full speed with his head down, dashing for the stairs. He starts flying up the steps two at a time. My Vati’s a big guy with a bit of a belly but he’s running faster than I’ve ever seen him move. He knocks over a man, sends a woman flying against the railing and I’m thinking that this is totally nuts. It’s then that I see these two guys in dark coats and fedoras chasing up the stairs after him. My legs turn to Jello and my knees buckle under me. The world around me disappears as I get this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Whatever is happening to my Vati, I know it’s not good.
* * *
Now what? I wonder. Where’s my father? This is terrible. Horrible. Worse than that.
Don’t move a centimenter!
I drag the trunk back to the newsstand where Vati had left me, and plant myself in a spot under the kiosk that gives a little protection from the rain.
I’ll be right back.
Though I’m scared, I do the only thing I can do— flip the trunk, plop down on it and stare out at the glistening streets.
When I peer down Park Avenue, I see a line of even darker clouds moving my way.
The seat of my pants is damp and I can feel the metal right through my underwear. I try not to dwell on what I have just seen and keep reminding myself about how Vati always talks about keeping your word. A promise is a promise. If you give someone your word, you have to stick to it no matter what. A man is only as good as his word. Blah blah blah. So if he says he’ll be back, then he’ll be back, right?
And if he’s not back? Oh my God, what then? Did I imagine all this? Sometimes it happens that I think I see something and it’s not really there. No, I saw it! Him running.
Never in my entire life has my Vati just left me somewhere strange. He’s always taken good care of me, protected me, made sure that I’ve eaten enough, slept well, gotten to school on time, done my homework. He’s an engineer, a marine engineer, and I feel bad that he has to work such long, hard hours. Sometimes he doesn’t come home until eight at night. He’ll call me when he’s leaving work and if it isn’t too late I’ll go and meet him at the subway station on Union Turnpike. He always looks so happy to see me. And then we’ll walk together up the street, cut through the park and down to Metropolitan Avenue and he’ll tell me things. Maybe he’ll talk about history, about the big war, reminding me about how hard life had become after the big war. How once Germany had been a great nation. He’ll talk about people like Metternich and Bismark uniting the country.
“Germany has history. A thousand years of culture. Great composers and music, artists, writers. The Americans here have no idea about anything other than themselves. They think Sweden is Switzerland. What is history for them but a couple of hundred years— the blink of an eye. Maybe one day we’ll go back. When things are good again. You’d like that, ja?”
I love to listen to Vati talk, switching back and forth between German and English so I’m never sure which language he’s talking. But to tell the truth, I’m not quite so sure about going back. I’m getting kind of comfortable in America now. Does he mean like for a visit or for keeps?
Right from the beginning I loved baseball, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Infielders like Woody English, pitchers like Harry Eisenstat and the lefty Max Butcher. I had the dream that maybe I could become a Dodger. Of course I’m a real klutz and the last to be chosen to play.
I love American music, too, and when Kate Smith comes on the radio I always sing with her “God Bless America”— which gets Vati looking at me in a strange way.
42nd Street is busy. It’s jammed with taxis and cars, the drivers leaning on their horns. People streaming into the station swirl around my trunk. A blur of arms reach for papers, money changes hands, coins clink into a can. The solid bank of clouds moves in and I can’t even see the upper floors of the buildings anymore. The wind suddenly starts to howl and then the rain pours down. Everybody but me —tied to this stupid trunk— runs for it. I press tight to the newsstand as streams of water run off the shelter.
Soaked to the bone, I flap my arms like a bird to keep warm. In Mrs. Goldberg’s science class in P.S. 99 we’ve learned that birds can protect themselves from the cold by puffing up their feathers, the dead air space creating an insulating blanket. Okay, but what happens when it rains and they’re drenched? I think of a poor bird sitting on a branch, its feathers plastered to its skin, a poor bird somewhere in this rainswept city, alone and freezing and with no dry place to go. When I think about it I want to cry. My eyes flood and it’s as if I was looking through a kaleidoscope.
My teeth start chattering high speed.
Stop being such a coward, says my Vati all the time. So ein Feigling. Um Gotteswillen. Be a man! Back in Berlin my father was an amateur boxer, which is why he keeps taking me to the YMCA where I’m supposed to build my body and get toughened up by watching grown men slugging each other in the head.
Well, okay, he’s right. I am a chicken. I’m scared of getting into fights. When some kid tries to pick a fight with me I suddenly get weak and sick to my stomach. I’m terrified of getting hit— or having to slug another kid. I wish I were braver, but whenever I see one of the bullies in my class like Curtis Gibbs or Lenny Schnear I take off before they even have a chance to corner me.
Be a man! I’m trying, Vati, but…
The rain tapers off…
And I wait…
Maybe I’m more like my Mutti was? It’s getting harder to remember what she was like, what she looked like. If it wasn’t for a couple of pictures I’d be lost. When I stare at myself in the mirror I see Vati’s high cheeks, but I have Mutti’s thick, dark hair and her big nose. I don’t particularly like my nose, but Vati says it gives me character. And my teeth are too big for my mouth, so I try not to smile too much because it makes me look goofy— at least in the mirror it does. And this morning I developed a huge red pimple smack between my eyes— which will only get bigger and more disgusting. And so is the hair that’s been sprouting all over me. Next thing you know I’ll be growing hair on my back like Vati. And the last thing I need in life is to look like a monkey.
Hours later, with daylight gone, the crowds have vanished, traffic is thin, and the place is feeling pretty lonely.
A cop across the street has been watching me. He stands in his rain slicks flipping his nightstick and catching it deftly in his hand. My heart starts to thud. He steps into the street and walks my way.
“Hi there, son,” he says, twirling his baton. He’s got reddish hair and a wide pale face— the last human being in the world my father would want me talking to is a cop. Uniforms are trouble. He’s told me about people he knows who just crossed the street against the light and the next thing they knew they were in a police station and had lost their papers. Back on the ship they went, penniless.
I look up at the burly man in blue.
“You waitin’ for somebody?”
My face burns and the pounding in my ears is so loud I can hardly hear him. I try to speak, but my mouth is dry and my throat feels like it’s closing up.
“Cat got your tongue?” he asks, bending over to get a closer look at me, his big freckled face blocking out everything.
I don’t know what to say.
“I been watching you. You been here alone a long time.”
Little does he know.
“My father,” I say hoarsely and try to clear my throat. “I’m meeting him here.”
The cop doesn’t budge.
I hear Vati’s voice: Don’t be a coward!
“We’re taking the train. To my Aunt’s house.”
“Oh, I see,” he says, nodding his head, but it doesn’t look like he’s convinced. “And where, son, might this lady be living?”
My mind races. I think of all the geography I’ve learned. The capitals of the States. The exports of Venezuela and Cuba. Wheat grown in Nebraska. Cattle in Kansas. Cowboys in Montana. “Albany,” I blurt out.
To my astonishment, it works. He smiles. There are trains to Albany, thank God.
“I have to go now,” I say, and start to lift the trunk.
“That’s a pretty hefty trunk for a young fella like you,” he remarks.
“It’s clothes and presents for my Aunt and Uncle.” The word Uncle just stupidly slips out, so I’ve got to keep going. “He lives with her. And they have two children. A boy my age and his little sister.” Where this is coming from is an complete mystery. I just know that once I start inventing stuff, I can’t stop. “They have a farm and they raise horses.” And what do I know about farms? “Racing horses. Famous ones that win prizes. And longhorn steers.”
The cop is taking all this in, so I keep going on and on, building up their farm, which is actually now a sprawling ranch. In my mind’s eye I can see it all. There’s sagebrush and tumbleweed just like in the movies that I see on the weekends. Cactus. Indians on a ridge, looking down on a herd of cattle that they’re planning to stampede.
The next thing I know, the cop is laughing and I’m grinning like a moron while steadily backing off with the trunk that scrapes along the pavement.
* * *
The crowds dwindle to nothing. I keep checking the big clock in the station. It’s now something after ten o’clock and the place is pretty damn spooky. I keep going back and forth, dragging the trunk to the entrance doors to check the newsstand, glancing up and down the darkened street, but there’s still no sign of Vati. Frankly, I don’t have a clue what to do. It’s dry here in the station so I suppose I could just wait here all night, but I’m sure something terrible has happened to Vati and I don’t think he’s coming back here. Did those men catch him? Boy, I hope not. And who are they? I’ve got to do something. Act.
I start seriously considering going to the police, but then I think, who could be chasing him but the police, right?
Then I see Vati’s face. Not here in Grand Central, but in my mind’s eye. And boy oh boy it’s got one nasty, angry look on it.“Bist du total verrückt? Are you completely nuts? Was fällt Dir ein? Go to der Polizei? The police?”
I see us being deported. We’re on a ship, but this one is not like the fancy one from the Hamburg-Amerika Linie we sailed over in, with it’s white tablecloths and elegant waiters bearing steaming platters of Saurbraten and sizzling plates of Wienerschnitzel. Uh-uh. The one I imagine is the kind you see in the movies, the kind with water leaking in through the hull and rats scurrying around. And we’re deep below the decks, in the engine room together with a bunch of filthy, half-naked, blackened-faced guys. The heat is unbearable, we’re sweating like pigs, and we’re loading coal into the gaping mouths of flaming boilers. There’s a man standing over us with a whip and Vati and I are shoveling like mad to keep the furnaces stoked. “Ach! Look at the fine mess you’ve gotten us into this time,” grumbles Vati, his face streaked with grime and sweat, “Du dumma Esel, Du!” You stupid donkey!
Sure my imagination is running away with me, but I’m really worried. Lost. Scared. Lonely. You name it. We don’t have any close family to speak of, not any real friends I can trust. Suddenly I’ve got nothing in the world but a heavy trunk and… I dig through my pockets… and a lousy nickel.
I’m starving. Really hungry. A nickel will get you— me— a piece of fruit. Some candy. A bread roll or two, which sounds terribly tempting. It’ll also get me a ride on the subway back to our apartment in Kew Gardens. For once in my life I don’t go for “immediate gratification,” as Vati would call it, and slide the trunk across the expanse of stone floor toward the subway entrance.
There are a lot of steps, which means a lot of lifting and bumping— I hope there’s nothing delicate inside. By the time I get myself and the trunk onto the E train bound for Queens it’s late and the subway car is pretty empty. I plant myself on a seat with the trunk clamped between my knees. The train zooms through the blackened tunnel, the car slamming wildly back and forth on its carriage. As it banks around a tight curve, it emits a nasty squeal like a dying animal. At one end of the car is a Negro man in greasy overalls who’s got a lantern at his feet. Probably a transit worker, I figure. An old woman with a big shopping bag clutched in her lap sits at the other end with her eyes shut. Directly across from me there’s what looks to my eyes like a very fancy couple. The lady’s got on a hat with a veil, a silver fox draped around her neck. Her wool coat is open exposing a shimmering red dress. Under a trench coat the man’s wearing a dark suit with a bow tie. They got in at the same station that I did and I can’t help but notice how they keep looking my way. Maybe they suspect something? Know about Vati being chased. Are we already on the radio? Have the police issued an All Points Bulletin like on “Gangbusters”— you know, the program with authentic FBI stories?
Anyway, I do my best to appear normal. I whistle to myself and study the overhead advertisements. On one there’s a soda jerk holding out a cold, bubbling glass of Coca Cola. “The pause that refreshes.” Man oh man, that would just hit the spot— what with a nice soft, chocolatey Devil Dog, its velvety white cream oozing out as my teeth sink in. The juices flood my mouth and my stomach twists in knots. My eyes shift and there’s Elsie, the Borden cow, holding in her hoof a can of milk. “If it’s Borden’s, it’s got to be good.” You bet! I could really go for a swig of that sweet, rich, condensed milk. Gulp gulp gulp. What a trick, I chuckle to myself, a cow holding something in her hoof.
No matter where I look there seems to be food, candy, Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum. It’s like all this has been arranged just to torture me. I keep searching until my eyes settle on a big picture of a shiny red DeSoto. “Jack Dempsey says his new DeSoto is a knockout.” Oh, how I wish we had a car. I wonder what it feels like to actually drive one? Have a steering wheel in your hand controlling all that power, all that steel. You could probably hit 120 if you floored it. If you could attach some kind of wings and a tail at those speeds you could probably get airborne. I’ll bet if the kids in my class saw me driving one of these cars they wouldn’t think I was such a jerk and stop picking on me: “Hey, shithead, who you looking at, huh?” And I wouldn’t have to run away with them shouting after me, “Come back here and fight, you little faggot!” Well, maybe I am queer, who knows, except I’m dying to see a real live naked women. But I know I’m different from other kids— that’s for sure.
Without needing to check, I can feel the weight of the couple’s eyes. Finally I shift my gaze in their direction and the woman smiles at me. I wrap my arms tight around the trunk and go back to studying the posters.
In the darkness of the tunnel the colored lights fly by, stations come and go. Queens Plaza. Roosevelt Avenue. Forest Hills. Finally the train slows for Union Turnpike and I get up and pull the trunk to the door. The couple is up, too, right behind me.
When the doors open, I pick up the trunk and start up the stairs. I’m lifting the trunk, one miserable step at a time, huffing and puffing, a trickle of sweat running down my face when I feel a hand on my shoulder.
“Here, let me help you,” says the elegant man. I can smell whiskey on his breath.
Don’t let this out of your hand!
“No, no, it’s nothing.”
The woman laughs gaily.
The man joins in. “That’s a big trunk for a young chap like you.”
“It’s okay. I’m used to it.” I try to make it look easy, as if I spend my life moving baggage.
They continue climbing up the stairs, but keep turning around to watch me— which is a little creepy.
Then they’re gone. Out of sight. Thank God.
I exit through the swinging gate, lug the trunk up another set of stairs to the street. It’s dripping outside, but now I’m broiling and soaked in sweat.
I look around. Queens Boulevard is awfully quiet. There’s a couple of yellow taxis waiting behind Cushman’s Bakery. Behind the Kew Gardens General Hospital there’s the stop for the bus that goes down Lefferts Boulevard to our apartment on Metropolitan Avenue. But, since I don’t have a penny left to my name, I’m going to have to somehow make it on my own.
Just then a Lincoln Zephyr pulls up. It’s the 1939 model with twelve cylinders giving it a 110 horsepower engine. I know all this because, like my father, I’m interested in engines and machines. I can’t help but admire the car when, suddenly, the window on the passenger side rolls down and there’s that lady with the fox stole from the subway.
“Why don’t you let us give you a lift home, honey?”
In the darkened interior I can make out the guy with the bow tie at the wheel.
I don’t know what to do.
“Hop in,” says the man and it’s terribly tempting. I’ve never ridden in a fancy car like this.
“We don’t eat young boys, do we Frank?” the woman laughs. It’s a nice, warm laugh.
The man jumps out, puts his key into the rear of the car and the lid pops up. He reaches for my trunk.
“No, no thank you,” I shake my head, holding the trunk tight. I don’t quite know why I’m resisting, but… a little bird is telling me I shouldn’t even be getting into this car, Lincoln or not.
“Sonny, anybody tell you about not looking a gift horse in the mouth?” he asks, slamming the lid closed and opening the rear door of the car for me. I heave the trunk up into the car and start to wiggle it over the back seat to make room for myself.
“No, no, you can sit up here with us, honey,” says the woman patting the space next to her invitingly.
“Yeah, get in with Violet,” he urges.
But Violet or not, there’s no way I’m letting go of this trunk.
I climb into the rear and sit there waiting. Finally Frank slams the door closed, gets into the drivers seat and we take off.
“Where do you live?” he asks.
“118-18 Metropolitan Avenue.”
He knows the place. “Oh, Alt Green Towers.”
“You’ve got a bit of an accent,” says Violet, turning around to look at me. When she speaks she’s got a faint lisp.
“Yeah, just a little. What country do you come from?”
“The Bronx,” I answer.
“You born there?”
“Yes, of course,” I say, trying my best to employ the King’s English I’ve heard employed in the movies.
Frank says he knows my building, but instead of going up Kew Gardens Road all the way to Lefferts, he takes a right turn on Onslow Place and then another sharp right on Austin Street.
My heart starts to bound. “No, this is the wrong way!”
“We’re just stopping at our house for a second to…” Violet starts to explain, but it’s so dark outside and I’m so scared that I reach for the door and yank it open.
“Whoa! Hold on there!” shouts the man, jerking the car to a stop. You want to get us killed?”
“No. I just wanna go home, not…”
“Sure, sure, Sweetheart. Frank, you’re making the kid nervous. Please, drive the boy home first. We’re not in a rush, right?”
Frank lets out a sigh, then turns the car around. We follow the road parallel to the Long Island railroad tracks until we come to Lefferts, then take a right. On Metropolitan he takes another right turn, following behind a trolley. In the diffused light of the street I can see the familar stone archway to my building, make out the fort-like roof that gives my place the look of a medieval castle. I draw in a deep breath and slowly let it out. Four floors up in the elevator and I’m home. Safe. Maybe Vatti’s there already? As we near, I check the windows to our apartment and my heart sinks. There’s not a light on to be seen.
Frank slows to stop and I suddenly spot a car parked across the street. It’s a Buick Sedan— the bug-eyed model with those extra rear windows. I can make out two figures seated in the front. A match flares to light a cigarette and I recognize the face. It’s one of the two men who were chasing Vati. I’m sure of it. Positive!
* * *
For the longest moment I sit in the Lincoln unable to budge. It’s like I’ve just come down with the worst case of polio. Not only am I’m paralyzed, but I can’t breathe. I’m like one of those kids you see in the newsreels who’s locked in an iron lung.
It takes forever for me to come to my senses, but it’s probably a little less than that. My brain is spinning. I’m trying to think fast.
“Oh, no,” I slap my head dramatically, just the way I’ve seen Vati do it. “I made a mistake. I don’t live here anymore.”
Violet and Frank turn full circle to look at me.
The window in the other car slides down and the two men are now looking straight at our car. I don’t know if they can see me inside, but playing it safe I crouch down on the floorboard.
Frank and Violet see the car and exchange what looks to me like knowing looks. To my mind they’re either in on this somehow or they think I’m a lunatic. On the one hand they seem nice and I’m tempted to blurt everything out, tell them about my father leaving me, the men chasing him, beg them to help me. But on the other hand that little bird, the one freezing on the branch says, “Don’t trust anybody.”
Frank and Violet lean over to see me hunkered down on the floor.
“What in the world are you doing?” asks Violet.
“I dropped something,” I say and go through the motions of rummaging around. “Some money.”
“Here, let me turn on the…”
“No lights!” My voice jumps an octave. Then I look up and smile at them. “It’s just a penny.” I force a big grin. It must be the most insane smile they’ve ever seen. “A lucky penny, but it doesn’t really matter. Please, could you drive me back to Kew Gardens Road. That’s where we live now. Silly me, I forgot that we just moved.”
They keep staring at me and the car doesn’t budge.
“We’ve just bought a new house. A big, white private house with a lawn all around. It’s for my sister and me— so we can each have a room. And it’s got a garage for my father’s Desoto— he’s got the same one Jack Demsey’s got. My mother’s expecting a new baby. Actually the doctor thinks now maybe it’s twins. Boys. At least I’m hoping, because there’s nothing better than having brothers. We could play ball together and…” Blah blah blah. I go on and on. I’m so nervous that I do what I do when I get jumpy— I blabber. And pray that maybe they’ll move before the two in the other car get wind of me.
Frank shakes his head, then finally shifts his car into gear. As we coast past the Buick, I peek out the rear window to see the two figures in the car. The only thing I can make out is the glowing tip of a cigarette.
* * *
“I thought you lived in a white house?” says Violet, when I point out my new house.
“Well, it was white, but then my father had it painted gray. I mean he had stucco put on the outside. He said it gives the house more charm. Personally I liked it the old way, but you know my father, always changing things.” To distract them, I keep the patter going as I drag the trunk out of their car. “Thank you so very much for the ride. I really appreciate it,” I say as politely as humanly possible. “Perhaps I’ll have the pleasure of meeting you again.”
“Be careful,” warns Frank and before I can ask him what he actually means, they’re gone.
And I’m safe. Great! Except what do I do now? Where’s Vati? How the hell could he do this to me? Or have they captured him? Arrested him? Killed him? Maybe they’re taking his papers away and shipping him back to Berlin. Oh, I’ve never felt so alone in my whole life. It feels almost as bad as when I realized that my Mutti was dying. I can still see her face all collapsed, her feverish eyes as she stretched out a bony hand to touch me. I still feel horrible when I think back to how I pulled away from her, afraid of her look and smell. My very own Mutti. Why did I ever behave like that?
Two blocks away is P.S. 99. Instinctively I head there. I lug the trunk until my arms give out, then just drag it. The oaks lining the road block the street lamps and create eerie patches of black shadow. The only sound you can hear is the rain dripping from the leaves and my trunk scraping along the sidewalk. Fortunately there’s not a soul to be seen, so I’m maybe safe?
This piece of luggage has to be important, I remind myself as I near the school. Vati wasn’t kidding, that’s for sure.
There’s a hole in the schoolyard fence where the kids sneak through to play stickball. By the time I reach it I’m completely out of breath and my shirt is glued to my body.
Three long years here and I certainly know my way around the school. In the fifth grade, when I was Mrs. Reilly’s monitor, it was my job to go to the basement storage room and bring things up for her. An art easel. Extra chairs. The step ladder. Back then I was having a hard time behaving. It was always, “Stevie stop talking and get back into your seat right now!” — which is why I got the job. After giving me a D in “self-control,” I think she was grateful for any excuse to get rid of me.
I try a basement window, but it’s locked. I test another one, but still no luck. On my third try the sash is also secured, but the clasp is flimsy. What the hell, I think. Vati and I are in deep shit as it is. I grip the window and yank. I try again and finally the latch breaks loose.
I worm my way down through the window, then start to yank in the trunk. It just barely squeaks through and I jump aside as it lands on the floor with a loud clunk. I sure hope there’s no glass inside.
The storage room is pitch black and I blindly grope for the light switch. When the light comes on, I’m relieved to discover myself amidst familiar surroundings: Up-ended little desks used for the first and second graders, old chalkboards and flat basketballs and volleyball nets— all laced with cobwebs and coated in a fine film of dust. It’s a bit dank and dark down here, but nevertheless there’s something about this place that feels comforting, protective, finally safe. I find some old cushions that came from the teachers’ lounge, thump them hard to get rid of the dust, and line them up on the concrete floor.
In here it’s nice and dry and warm, so I lean back, stretch out and think…
* * *
“So, grandpa, what did the boy do next?”
“What would you do?”
“I’d open the trunk and look inside,” said Lucas, his voice cracking— just as Stefan’s did at the time.
“But it’s locked.”
“I’d break the lock.”
“Well, I suppose you can say that Stevie was a little less confident. He knew his father wouldn’t want him to open the trunk. And his old man could be a pretty fierce guy, hard on him at times.”
“Like my father?”
“Your father never hit you, not like Stevie’s.”
“You mean he beat him?”
The old man shrugged. “Sometimes he’d give him a good one across the face.”
“He could go to jail for that.”
The grandfather couldn’t help but laugh. “Wait till you hear the rest.”
* * *
I don’t want to attract any attention, so finally I turn out the light in the storage room. Lying there in the pitch blackness, the only sound I can hear is the steady drip-drip of water somewhere outside. I don’t know what to do, so in desperation I pray.
“Dear God in heaven, please protect my Vati…” And then, for good measure, I launch into, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you…”
I don’t get terribly far in my devotion, because I’m suddenly thinking about religion. Vati’s not at all religious, but on special occasions he sometimes goes to Mass and takes me along. He says he goes because he likes the music and it’s always to the big churches in the city— the ones that have large, impressive choirs. Christmas, of course, it’s Handel’s Messiah. Once, in the middle of the Mozart Requiem, I suddenly started crying. I was thinking of poor Jesus on the cross. They had actually hammered spikes through his hands and feet. It must have hurt like crazy. And then you don’t die right away. You just hang up there and suffer.
“The Jews did it,” said Billy Gerhardt, who lives in my building but goes to Catholic school instead of P.S. 99.
It made no sense to me, because Jesus was Jewish, too, right?
“Did you ever notice how it’s always sunny on Sunday?” Billy once asked. We were in Forest Park, leaning over the concrete rim of the pond down by Richmond Hill, trying to catch minnows.
I thought about it… It was true. “Yeah. How come?”
“Because that was the day his mother, Mary, dried his diapers.”
I suppose even the son of God was a baby once, but every time I’ve tried to imagine Jesus in diapers all I see is this skinny, bleeding guy with a beard hammered up there on the cross.
For some reason I am deeply affected in a church. I love the sense of space created by the ceilings high over my head, the mysterious sounding voice of the priest and the choir singing. When I confessed to Vati that I wanted to be an altar boy, he looked at me and mumbled, “Bist du verrükt?” Are you crazy?
Getting back on track I return to my prayers.
“…and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus,” I murmur into the darkness, “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners…”
And that’s the last thing I remember. Because the next thing I hear is the school bell ringing. Kids shouting. Through the window I see them up in the yard running around, the teachers blowing whistles and calling “Line up!”
Bleary-eyed, I try to gather my wits. Last night comes back to me. The trunk. Vati being chased. The two men in the parked car. Our apartment empty and being spied on.
I watch the students outside as they noisily fall into line, pushing and shoving each other. They all know what’s expected of them and what to expect. They have parents at home who have seen them off to school this morning. After school they’ll come home. There’ll be a mother waiting. Cookies and milk. Maybe piano or dance lessons. Without Vati I’m adrift, cut loose from all that’s familiar and safe. I don’t know what I should do, or even where I now belong.
I keep staring out the window, craving to be a part of this everyday world, debating with myself. Then, quickly, I tuck in my shirt, smooth down my hair with some spit and squiggle out the window.
* * *
“Well, Stevie Mayer?”
I’m lost in my thoughts about my predicament when I’m startled by Mrs. Goldberg, my science and math teacher. She stands at the blackboard leveling a crooked finger at me. With her beady eyes and hooked nose, she could easily find work in the movies as a double for a vulture.
“Huh?” I utter, gathering my wits.
Everybody in the class is laughing.
“What’s your equation?” her staccato voice pecks the air.
“My equation,” I echo, looking down at my blank notebook. I’m so mixed up, not to mention hungry, that I can’t seem to think.
The entire class burst out laughing again and the teacher does nothing. Everybody enjoys seeing me squirm— everybody, that is, but Miriam Anschel, the new girl in school, who sits to my right up near the blackboard. With her big, dark eyes and short clipped hair, she turns around to glance at me and there’s a funny look in her eyes. I’m not sure if it’s sympathy or just plain pity.
“You dumb shit,” whispers Curtis Gibbs from behind. Left back for two years, he is an ape-faced, towering giant who, for some damn reason, just hates me. As he grins he exposes a pair of long, sharp canines. He’s got the crude features and sloping head of early Cro-Magnon man and his arms are so long I’m surprised he’s not walking on his knuckles. One more year and, even if he isn’t promoted, he’ll be old enough to drop out of school. Perhaps everybody thinks I’m a bit stupid, but this baboon with his greasy duck’s ass hairdo, is a real A-number-one moron. Which would be okay as far as I’m concerned, except that he’s downright dangerous— always poking and punching me, trying to get me into a fight.
I squint at the blackboard. On it is a word problem. In three years Mary will be twice as old as John. The sum of Mary’s age and… Blah blah blah. How could I care about the age of some phony kids when my entire world is whirling in chaos?
Mrs. Goldberg marches my way and stands over me with her hands parked on her hips, tapping the toe of her shiny right shoe. The whole class is swiveled around, eagerly staring at me when the door pops open and in steps Linda Farber, a seventh grade ass-kisser who’s the monitor for Mrs. OIiver, our principal. Linda hands Mrs. Goldberg a note on yellow paper.
As she reads, Mrs. Goldberg purses her lips. Lenny Schnear, takes the opportunity to send a sharpened pencil flying through the air. It stings me in the back of the head. When I turn, his fat face leers at me. Go on, do something about it, you little fairy, he mouths. The spot on the back of my head still burns and when I touch it I come back with drops of blood sticking to my finger.
Looking up from the note, Mrs. Goldberg focuses her hawk eyes back on me. “They want to see you in Mrs. Oliver’s office.” Her squawky voice implies, ‘Here we go, he’s in trouble again.’
“Me?” Did I hear wrong? Did she say they? Not just the principal? My heart feels like it’s flopping around in my chest like a crippled sparrow, missing whole beats. Flap flap flap.
“Well, get up already,” she screeches, and I obediently leap to my feet.
I keep my head low as I follow Linda, her Mary Jane’s tapping along the corridor. Linda has pronounced breasts that poke through her tight green sweater. They’re so big you’d have to be blind not to notice them. And in the midst of all my troubles I’m wondering what they look like, what they’d feel like if you ever got a chance to actually touch them. Are they soft like a fluffy pillow or hard like muscle? Truthfully, in my life I’ve never really touched one, much less two— if you don’t count my Mutti’s, but then I was just a little baby and how can I remember that?
By the time we get to the principal’s office I’ve got an aching boner a yard long. Linda stands aside to let me in, and I quietly enter, bent over at the waist, hands poised over my crotch.
My eyes go to Mrs. Oliver who sits at her big, oak desk. A mustached man in a gray suit sits across from her. The principal, who’s yakking away, doesn’t notice me, but as the man nods and smiles, he’s clearly watching me through the corner of his eye.
Our principal is a scary woman with mounds of flesh. Shaped like a tortoise, she’s all body with these little things sticking out, which are her arms and legs. Her crinkly permed hair is a weird color of yellow, and her eyes sit like tiny raisins in her powdered face. Her lips are painted fire engine red.
Mrs. Oliver lifts her bulk. As she waddles around I can’t help but stare at her backside. It’s almost as big as the Queen Mary.
She grabs me by the arm and pulls me over to where the man sits, then plops herself back into her chair. The springs creak and in her wake I can smell a trail of sickeningly sweet perfume.
The man in the gray suit, who hasn’t stopped observing me, pretends to finally take notice. With his big upper jaw and receding chin, he reminds me of a woodchuck or a squirrel… or a rat. Yeah!
I stand waiting.
The man smiles at me with his narrow, rodent bite. His teeth are yellowed and his clothes reek of cigarette smoke.
“This is Mr. Phelps,” says Mrs. Oliver, her voice low and drawn out.
“Hi, son.” He holds out a beefy hand and when I reach out he squeezes my fingers so tight it feels like he’s squishing all the bones in my hand. And he keeps on crunching down, and doesn’t let go until I howl.
Mrs. Oliver ignores the fact that I’m blowing on my hand, trying to stop the pain. “Mr. Phelps is from the FBI,” she says, and what’s left of my boner withers in a flash. “He wants to ask you some questions.”
The FBI? Holy shit!
Though the agent talks to me, the blood thundering in my ears is so loud I can barely make out what he’s saying. He’s got the strangest eyes. The pupils are actually yellow.
As I stand there stunned, Mr. Phelps starts asking me questions, like what grade I’m in and when did I come to P.S. 99?—as if he doesn’t already know all this.
Eyes lowered under his piercing gaze, I mutter some crap.
“Do you like baseball?” he wants to know. And what’s my favorite team? I know the teachers think I’m a pretty dim light, but this is downright insulting. Anyhow, I keep playing along. I tell him about the Dodgers. My favorite position is shortstop. Blah blah blah. All the time that he’s smiling and nodding, stone-faced Mrs. Oliver has got her raisin eyes on me. It’s obvious she’s in the dark.
Phelps offers me a piece of gum, which Mrs. Oliver— strangely out of character— allows me to accept. Chewing gum in school is definitely worth a couple of demerits.
Finally he asks, “Where’s your father?”
Chomping down on the spearmint, I pretend to look puzzled. I respond, “At work. Like always.”
“What kind of work does he do?”
“He’s an engineer. A marine engineer.”
“Where does he work?”
“At the shipyard.”
“In Staten Island, I think.” Though I know and I’m sure the FBI guy knows all this, too, we continue to do this dance.
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“Huh? This morning,” I say, thinking quickly. “He made me breakfast.”
“Yeah, what’d you have?” he fires out his question.
“Eggs,” I return the volley. “Sunnyside up. Toast with strawberry jam.” I can see it all neatly arranged in front of me, and my mouth is watering so much I can hardly keep from drooling. I swallow. “My father had coffee and I had hot milk with Ovaltine.”
“You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?” says the G-man, his smile long gone.
I try to look innocent. “No. Not at all. Actually I’m not doing so great in school here.”
Mrs. Oliver nods.
“Where were you last night?”
“What?” My breath catches. I’m back in the iron lung.
“Answer the man,” warns Mrs. Oliver.
“You think I’m stupid?” asks the cop, his face turning beet red.
I don’t know how to answer this. I’d say yes, except he now looks so angry I’m afraid he’s going to lump up and slug me.
“Okay, where’s the box?” he asks finally.
“What gives? Is there an echo in here, or something?” He dramatically gazes around the office, then turns back to me. “The box, you dummy. The box!”
“The box, young man,” repeats the principal, though it’s obvious she doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about.
But then neither do I. Does he mean the trunk?
“Box. The metal box. You know, it’s about this big,” he says, holding his hands maybe a foot apart. “You’ve seen it right?”
“No,” I say, honestly surprised. This is all getting stranger by the minute.
The FBI man gets up, straightens his jacket and walks around the room. Coming full circle he approaches me from behind and wraps his arm around my shoulder. “Look,” he mutters close to my ear, “If you saw the box you’d tell us, right?”
“Sure,” I say, feeling the weight of his hand.
“’Cause you know If you didn’t…” he whispers and starts to dig his nails into my neck. It hurts so much my eyes water. “You could get into big trouble. You could go to jail… This is serious business you could even go to the electric…” he pauses, then draws out the word, “…chair.”
Then he smiles. Mrs. Oliver, who hasn’t heard this and doesn’t realize that I’m in real pain, smiles, too, and suddenly I hate this woman with all my heart.
Finally I’m dismissed and led back to Mrs. Goldberg’s room by goody-goody Linda with her big tits. My neck still throbs where the agent dug in his fingers, and for once I’m not interested in Linda’s breasts, nor am I intimidated. I’m not scared any more, I’m just plain angry. And if Vati knew what I was being put through he’d be furious, too.
* * *Much more to come
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