It was a small book, only 127 pages, and the print was kind of large. Not too well written, but it took Gretchen only two hours to read the whole thing, front to back. Now her hands wouldn’t stop shaking, trembling, betrayed by the vivid depictions assaulting her faculties.
She put the book in the glove box and got out of the car. As she walked across the parking lot of the county jail, Gretchen suddenly realized she couldn’t recall the title of the little book. But she did remember that it was blue. Gretchen began to cry quietly to herself as she approached the entrance of Central Booking, where she’d been ordered to report by the judge the day before.
What she had read still screamed in her thoughts.
‘Piles of little babies?’ Gretchen wondered, screwing up her face as she silently queried herself. A testament to an unimaginable horror swirled passed her mind’s eye, suddenly making her problems seem quite small.
“Where you are going is paradise,” said Mr. Soto when he first handed her the novella earlier that morning.
Gretchen had known Mr. Soto all her life, the kind old Greek Jew who owned the little grocery store on the corner, down the street from where she grew up. Her mother and grandmother had shopped there, its isles so narrow they had to walk sideways or they’d knock something off the shelf.
As a little girl, Gretchen was taught to always be polite to Mr. Soto. And never steal, not even a grape. He had gone through something terrible as a young man, and moved to America after the war.
Now Gretchen waited tables full-time, working herself though part-time college, not taking life too seriously. She lived with a couple of roommates, Marta and Demi, a surrogate family sharing a cheap apartment, taking advantage of the sweet bird of youth. Early mid-twenties, free, attractive and Facebooked. Her parents still helped her when the bills got tight.
But last weekend the hometown team won the big game, underdogs coming from behind to upset the old rival, first time in half-a-decade. And the party was on, drinks flowing, a student body spilling over into a nearby strip mall, display windows shattered. Sauced to the nines and moving with the crowd, Gretchen saw a trendy fashion she’d always wanted but couldn’t afford. In a fit of impulse, she snatched the latest craze from the vandalized showcase, then slipped away to a local hangout to change into the pilfered garment. Gretchen was the life of the party that night, dancing the night away in a purloined dress worth over a week’s pay. Capricious gleeful mirth, owing to its course.
The next day it was big news, the riots caught on video surveillance. Gretchen was identified along with many others, urged to come forward and accept an offering of leniency. A night in jail, restitution and a month of weekends doing community service. A swift, humiliating reprieve in lieu of slower, harsher justice.
On her way to turn herself in, Gretchen stopped at the little store to buy a cigarettes, hoping to calm her frayed nerves. Mr. Soto was there working the counter. At first Gretchen averted her eyes in shame, knowing she had been on television. But Mr. Soto smiled and called her brave for owning up to what she had done. Then he gave Gretchen his little book, something he’d reluctantly written decades ago at the insistence of others.
“A quick read,” said Mr. Soto, “to help put things in perspective.”
He was younger than her when the Nazis came to the tiny Greek island where he lived with his wife and two small children. They’d been part a fishing family that worked the Aegean Sea, a close family of nearly fifty. The little island’s inhabitants, about 500 Jews, were all shipped to the mainland in the hull of a large tanker, then loaded onto boxcars, spending a week in their own filth till Janowska, a death factory deep in the Ukraine. It was there that he last saw his wife and children, and all his family and friends. He survived by throwing the corpses of his people, his family and friends, into the furnaces, being the only one left from his tiny island by the war’s end.
As she was fingerprinted, Gretchen recalled the book’s title, suddenly grasping its meaning: Ratio of Loss. And as the deputy handed her the clean orange jumper she’d be wearing for the night, Gretchen thought of the photograph on the book’s cover: a monument with the names of the dead where the island village had once been. On the back was another photo: Mr. Soto standing outside the store with his new family, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of them smiling.