June 10, 1954

June 10, 1954

A Chapter by Kris St. James

June 10, 1954

Seattle, Washington

 

“My name is Shorty, and I’m an alcoholic.”  The lean man with the granite jaw, thinning, graying hair, piercing blue eyes and hint of an eastern European accent stood before a small group of men seated in folding chairs set up in a semicircle.

“Hey, Shorty,” they replied in friendly unison.

Shorty beamed as he prepared to report on his sobriety, careful not to take it for granted, while at the same time proud of himself for finally overcoming the Devil in the Bottle.  If only just for today.  “I’ve been sober for sixteen monthz, three weeks and…” he glanced at the Timex for humorous effect, “one day.”

“One day at a time!” a tall, older, very well dressed gentleman who could have been a doctor or a lawyer or even the governor cheerfully replied.

“It works if you work it!” a gravelly voice responded through the polite, but sincere applause given to Shorty’s important accomplishment.  “Keep comin’ back!” came another voice of approval to his immediate left.  Shorty felt the encouragement in their voices; saw sincerity in their faces.  It felt good and he hadn’t felt good in years.

“As many of you know, I grew up as a young boy in Poland.  Schneidemühl, to be exact. My family suffered terribly during zhe economic crisis zhat followed zhe Great War and ve vere forced to move to Germany just to survive.” His voice rose and fell with emphasis during the oft repeated matter-of-the-record recollection.  Shorty paused briefly, setting the stage for what followed, his tone dropping to the seriousness reserved for matters of the grave.  “I lost my vife during zhe birtz of our beautiful Katerina because ve had no money for a doctor.  But for fourteen precious years, my daughter vas zhe only woman in my life.”  He paused again, taking in the looks of concern and anguish as his small audience hung on his every word.  “But I lost her, unfortunately, to Allied bombing during zhe war.  And zhen zhere was zhe camp for me�"a most unpleasant experience, but I survived and eventually escaped.” 

He brought his hands to his face, tenting his fingers over the bridge of his nose, a physical segue to another topic; one much lighter in tone.  His face made a quick metamorphosis from somberness to joy as he brought his hands down in front of him in a prayerful gesture of thankfulness.  “However, life does eventually bring us out of zhe valleys and onto zhe summits, no?”  Shorty watched as eager faces nodded in approval, hungry for the good news they all craved; proof that working the twelve steps produced results. 

“I’ve just been promoted from foreman to superintendant in my company and I’m to close zhis afternoon on a new house zhat’s being built as we speak.  I move in zhe end of zhe montz.  And I owe it all to you guys and zhe program.”  He lifted the blue Alcoholics Anonymous book triumphantly before him as his peers all applauded loudly, some whistling their approval.  Shorty the Alcoholic glowed in their applause as he held the Big Book overhead with a big grin on his face.  He had finally arrived.  He was no longer running from the nightmares that plagued him; he was living the American dream.  All those years of drinking away his pittance of a salary�"of being thrown out of squalid garage apartments, YMCA’s, and rented rusty-musty camping trailers�"were finally over.  But even those pitiful excuses for homes were palaces compared to the time he had spent on the streets of Portland and Seattle.  Once Shorty had hit rock bottom, he finally admitted he needed real help.  The next step down from there was into a deep, cold grave.  One step to death, twelve steps to life.  He had survived far too much to be driven into the ground by a mere glass bottle filled with booze.

Shorty stepped outside the meeting and lit a cigarette as he walked down Fourth Avenue in the brilliant noontime sun.  As he passed Rivkin’s Jewelry, he paused to admire a beautiful display of gold men’s watches in the window.  The bright sun reflected the street life behind him in the window and obscured his view, so he stepped closer, cupped his hands around his eyes and leaned against the cool glass.  There were several he liked and any one of them was leaps over the cheap Timex.  A superintendant and homeowner needed a timepiece that made a statement to one’s peers�"but especially to one’s subordinates.  Shorty checked the prices of the five Bulovas.  Yes, expensive to be sure, but a Swiss watch would say just what he wanted others to think.  It would definitely be the gold rectangular Bulova with the leather strap.

A slight breeze brought a curl of smoke from his cigarette within his cupped hands, causing him to wince and step back from the glass.  The glare from the reflected street along with the smoke blinded him for a moment.  He wiped a tear from his eyes and in that instant, caught a brief watery glimpse of a slow moving black sedan in the window.  The driver’s strangely familiar face watched him from beneath a crisp fedora with the small red feather in the wide band.  Shorty wiped his eyes a second time, flinging the cigarette to the pavement.  He looked again at the reflection, turned quickly to face the street, but the car was no longer there.  In fact, there were no cars to be seen in either direction.

 

* * *

 

He watched the woman’s body tumble toward the pit.  The naked figure stopped halfway down the side, dead limbs spread-eagled against the frozen dirt.  It wasn’t getting any further without help.

Looking from the body to the frail prisoner standing above it, the German clenched his teeth.  Her again.  It wasn’t the girl’s first failure, but the Nazi would make sure it was her last.  His narrowed eyes burned holes in the girl’s shaven head, and she turned away, clearly afraid of him.  He watched the seventeen-year-old shiver, as much from fear as from the cold wind biting through her tattered camp uniform.  The gray and white striped garment ruffled in the chilled air; the yellow triangle on her chest fluttered like a flag.

Stupid Jew.  He thought.  Filthy rats.

An older woman came and stood beside the cowering youth, but didn’t touch her; an apparent attempt to provide comfort from her presence alone.  Their brown eyes met in a shared expression of fear of the SS guard they all called “The Butcher.” Everyone else kept working, trying not to be noticed, stealing furtive glances when they could do so without being seen.

On the other side of the pit, the Nazi fumed.  He’d have to send someone down to kick the body into the bottom of the pit with the rest of the exterminated vermin.  That would take time, and would pull someone off the production line.  That was inefficient, and couldn’t be tolerated.

The girl needs to be taught a lesson.  They all do.

His jowly face red with anger, The Butcher made his way around the pit; his shiny black leather boots gleamed from beneath a warm, gray overcoat.  The boots, meticulously polished by a prisoner every morning, quickly became discolored by the dirty snow on the ground.  A rawhide whip dangled loose in his gloved right hand, ready for action.  He methodically tapped it against the thick overcoat as he pounded across the uneven ground.

As he moved within striking distance, the older woman’s courage failed her.  Without a word, she stepped backwards, then turned and ran back to her workstation as tears escaped her tightly clenched sunken eyes and rolled down her gaunt cheeks.  She didn’t watch as the sounds of the beating echoed off the building behind her.  Loud whip cracks were followed by desperate screams over and over again, as the last remainder of the innocence of youth was flayed away.  Strips of flesh and rotten cloth were ripped off the young girl’s emaciated body with each blow; blood splattered the once white snow.  The older woman�"perhaps 35, maybe 60 (there was no way to be sure)�"didn’t need to look; she’d seen it before.  They all had.  Her friend’s pitiful cries rose into the dark clouds hovering overhead and were swallowed whole.  Then, as suddenly as the cries had started, they stopped.

“ATTENTION!” shouted The Butcher when it was over.  He straddled the stricken girl with his hands akimbo and waited until all the work stopped and the prisoner’s eyes were focused on him.  It didn’t take but a few seconds.  The Butcher rarely had to repeat himself.  He stabbed the whip handle in the direction of the girl on the ground beneath him.  Her sobs had quieted, though there was no way to tell if it was because the pain was easing or she was dying. 

“Do you see what happens to those who delay production?!”

Hollow eyes stared back at him while silent, heads bobbed the required affirmation.  The older woman’s eyes rose once to catch a glimpse of her young friend’s face, but the girl’s head was turned away, half covered in snow.  The Butcher looked at the two cowering women nearest him, and motioned them over.  They scurried obediently to him.  He pointed at the girl beside his feet. “Throw her in,” he said.

“But…”

“Throw her IN.”

“She’s still breathing!” gasped one of them, too stunned to obey the order.

A blood vessel pulsed on the side of his head; to him, the comment was nothing short of open rebellion.  He reached for his pistol.  His fingers barely grazed the handle of the Luger 9mm before the two prisoners grabbed for the stricken girl; one held her arms, the other her legs.  The Butcher watched as they swung the girl like a filthy rug, building enough momentum to get her away from the edge.  The girl began moaning as blood dribbled from the wounds on her back, making elliptical trails in the snow with each pass.  A satisfied smile crossed his lips when the frail body was launched into the air.  This little mouse would cause him no more trouble. 

They all watched the girl’s body turn in mid-air, arms outstretched as if taking flight.  For a moment it seemed as if she would succeed as momentum carried her upward, but gravity regained its grip and brought her back down into cold reality.  With a hollow thud, the woman’s young friend landed on the stack of lifeless bodies.  She heard soft moans coming from the pit as the girl pulled her thin limbs into a ball, clutching her knees against her chest, apparently seeking solace from the same position from which she’d entered the world.  She muttered a prayer under her breath that her friend would feel no more pain.

The Butcher pointed to the one who had hesitated.  “You! Go down and fix what she screwed up.”

The woman stared at the edge of the pit, appearing to calculate how far down the dead body was.  She turned toward The Butcher, as if to ask for help, then appeared to think better of the idea.  He could tell she was more afraid of him than of falling into a pit with dead people.  The thought gave him satisfaction.

Walking over to the edge, right above the body, the woman turned and carefully tried backing down the hill.  The Butcher moved closer to make sure she got it done.  Peering over the edge, he could see her struggling to keep her footing in the loose dirt lining the sides.  He doubted she could make it back up again.  Not that he cared about that.  Half the fun was watching them try.  The woman fumbled her way to about eight feet above the body when some of the dirt gave way and her feet lost their hold.  Deprived of her main support, she started sliding down the side of the pit.  Her arms flailed, trying to regain control, but the dirt pulled her sideways, parallel to the top.  In a slow, continuous movement, she ran into the dead man’s body; living and dead limbs entwined in a horrific embrace.

Screaming at the top of her congested lungs, the woman shoved lifeless arms and legs off of her as she tried to clamber up the side of the pit.  Loose dirt and shifting body parts frustrated the effort.  Desperation marked her movements as the woman tried to stack the bodies in order to get her closer to the top.  She looked like a scurrying little ant to him…and of about as much value.  Her shrieks reached for the top of the pit, bringing amusement to The Butcher, as the pair tumbled into the mass of frozen bodies below.

“No, no,” chuckled the SS guard to himself.  “You’ll undo all of their work.  That’s most inefficient.  Most inefficient.”

The Butcher pulled out his pistol, made sure he had a round in the chamber, then stepped to the side of the pit.  His once brilliant black boots sent small bits of dirt from the edge down the side of the pit, drawing the screaming woman’s attention.  She fell silent.  Her dark eyes lifted up to meet his as if imploring him for mercy.

It only took one shot.

 

Shorty sat upright in his bed at the sound.  His breath came in quick pants and a bead of sweat trickled down his face.  The pounding outside grew louder.  He parted the curtain and peered cautiously out the window.  The sky was filled with dark clouds, heavy with rain and the carpenters framing his new home were frantically nailing together the final supports so that the roof joists could be installed.  If the rain held off, that was.  It had rained every day since Monday, halting all progress on the new house.  The carpenters were out early in order to take advantage of every usable hour to work.  He admired that.

His mouth was dry and tasted horrible, so he rose from the fold-out bed of the narrow Airstream camper�"his final temporary home, Shorty had promised himself�"pulled on his pants and a fresh shirt and made his way to the tiny bathroom.  He removed the cap to the small Listerine bottle he kept on the narrow shelf and poured the remainder in his mouth, enjoying the familiar burn on his gums.  Before he realized it, he had swallowed it all, the burn flowing down his throat like so many shots of booze he thought were forever washed away by his new resolve.  It felt good, the burn.  Shorty stared long and hard at the old man in the mirror, yet remained a passive spectator to the events that were unfolding.  He waited to see what he would do next.  Outside he heard thunder in the distance, barely audible over the frantic hammering and shouts to hurry.  The small glass bottle slipped from his hand and shattered on the bare floor.  He vomited in the sink.

The water from the faucet felt cool and refreshing as he bathed his face and rinsed the sink clean.  He heard another peal of thunder, louder this time and no doubt closer.  A gust of wind rocked the tiny trailer and prompted Shorty to look out the window once more.  He saw several carpenters climbing down the homemade ladders that lead to the unfinished roof of the new house.  It appeared they had only gotten about half of the joists in place.  A fat drop of rain smacked the window and ran down the glass.  Someone knocked politely at the door.

Shorty turned to exit the bathroom to answer the door and immediately winced with pain.  He instinctively jerked back his foot from the broken Listerine bottle to reveal a few drops of bright red blood.  Another knock at the door.  He sat on the toilet and pulled his aching foot up onto his knee to examine it.  A long sliver of glass jutted out from the center of his tender foot and a growing trickle of blood ran down his pale skin.  He grasped the glass between his trembling fingers and pulled it out, then daubed at the cut with a wad of toilet paper.  The pain was intense, but had lessened with the removal of the glass.  He really wanted a drink.

Shorty limped to the door and opened it to find the head carpenter standing in a puddle of brown water.  The sky was darkening by the minute and several heavy raindrops splashed in the mud puddles that encircled his trailer.  The carpenter wiped sweat from his brow with a handkerchief before returning it to his pocket; two fat drops stained the shoulders of his light blue work shirt.  Shorty leaned heavily against the door frame while lifting his injured foot to keep pressure off of it, hoping the blood would clot soon so he could bandage it and get to work.  He was late.

“Mr. Shorter, I’m afraid it’ll be another few days until we can get the roof on your house.  The weather just isn’t cooperating with us and we can’t work up high in these conditions.”  The humble carpenter turned and indicated with a nod of his head the steep roof that was partially constructed.  Lightning flashed overhead and was followed by a sharp crash of thunder.  A sudden sheet of rain fell on the man and he instinctively ran up the two short steps of the trailer, forcing Shorty further inside.  The door slammed shut from another gust of wind.  The power went out.  The two men stood awkwardly in the dark camper as the storm gathered strength.  The sound of the torrent on the shiny silver skin of the Airstream was almost deafening. 

“I apologize for the inconvenience�"for rushing in like that.  I have a thing with storms.”

Shorty limped to the stove and found two candles in the cupboard.  From his pocket he pulled the old Zippo lighter his daughter had given him in 1942 as a Christmas present and lit them both along with a cigarette he took from an open pack on the counter.  “Under zhe circumstances, it is no trouble.”  He offered a candle and a cigarette to the carpenter.

“Don’t smoke, thanks.”  The carpenter took the candle and looked for a place to sit.  “I haven’t seen a storm like this one in a long time.”

Shorty motioned to a folding chair in the corner as he limped painfully to another that was leaning against the thin wall.  He had never entertained in the camper and was unprepared for the sudden visitor.  How he couldn’t wait for the house to be finished!  He would finally be able to properly receive guests.  All that he had lost or ever wanted�"all that had ever been taken from him he would soon have.  Shorty set the chair opposite the carpenter and waddled around to sit.  He was thinking of just calling in sick today; his foot hurt like the Devil and the weather was an absolute mess.  He would likely ruin the interior of his new car with muddy shoes.  But Shorty hadn’t missed a day of work in years.  He would simply be late this one time by offering his meager home as shelter to this poor, stranded carpenter until the storm died down enough for him to leave.  He would wear an old pair of workboots out to the car and simply carry his other shoes.  But he would make up the lost time.  He had a strict personal policy to make up for all the lost time he had wasted in his life.  In fact, Shorty had made himself a promise to work off all his many sins; to make up for all his mistakes and short comings. 

In that moment, a new thought came to him:  he would indeed make up for his short comings and he’d begin with dropping the name “Shorty”.  His name was Gerald.  Or even Mr. Shorter, as the carpenter had just addressed him.  Men like that worked for him now.  Yes, he liked the sound of Mr. Shorter.  Shorty was the fool who drank his way through the nightmares.  Shorty was weak.  Gerald had finally outgrown him.

“Haf you been a carpenter long, Mr…?”

“Just call me Joe, and yes, all my life.  Only skill I’ve ever known.  Outside little league, that is.  Are you a fan?” the carpenter asked.

“A fan?  Of vhat?”

“Well, baseball, naturally.  Who do you think will win the Series this year?” he asked pleasantly.  The rain continued to pound the trailer.

Gerald was thankful for the candle light at that moment.  It hid the blush on his cheeks.  “I’m going widzhe Yankees, if History is any teacher.  Zhey have von zhe past five years in a row, you know.”  The pain in his foot began to flare up.  At this point, Gerald didn’t want to involve his visitor any more than necessary in his personal affairs, so he stuffed his social and physical discomfort down deep inside.  He wished the man would just leave, thunderstorm or not.

“Yankees, huh?  Yeah, they’ve had a streak going lately.  In the Series, that is.  It’s awful early yet, but the Indians will edge them out this season, I think.  However, I’m going with the Giants to win it.  Got a hunch they’ll sew her up quick.”  He smiled almost apologetically, perhaps for the poor Yankees whom he had just doomed to defeat with his off-the-cuff prediction.  His eyes rolled overhead toward the sound of the rain on the metal roof of the camper.  “Sure is a mess out there, eh?  A shame we couldn’t get further on that roof.  Once it’s covered, we can work in the rain.  Mostly, anyway.”  The candle flickered from his breath as the man spoke.  Lightning flashed brightly outside, blinding Gerald for a moment.  Both men braced for the thunder, which roared overhead seconds later.

Gerald was beginning to dislike this carpenter.  He appeared lowly and humble, but he spoke with confidence.  He spoke like a man who was sure of himself; who could place a five hundred dollar bet on the World Series in June and sleep easy the rest of the season.  “My, zhat is a bold prediction.  Vell, ve shall see, von’t ve?  I haf not seen a game in quite a vhile.  I listen on my radio, but lately I’ve been so busy widz my work, I hardly have time for eating and sleeping.  I’m sure you know vhat zhat is like,” he stated rather than asked.  The list of small talk topics was shrinking rapidly and ironically discussing the weather appealed to no one at the moment.

Zhe Giants?  Who does he zhink his is, zhis guy?

 Suddenly the power came back on and light once again filled the room.

Who do men say that I am? The thought materialized from deep in the recesses of Gerald’s dark mind; a quote heard long, long ago during some obscure sermon he suffered through as a boy.  He could not recall the answer.

The carpenter lowered his gaze to Gerald’s feet where a small pool of blood had formed beneath his punctured sole.  He immediately blew out the candle, took out his handkerchief and kneeled before the injured man.  Joe gently lifted his foot and pressed against it with the handkerchief before Gerald could respond.

“Boy, you’ve really stuck yourself.  You’re bleeding pretty bad.  What happened to your foot?”  He applied firm pressure through the thin cloth while holding Gerald’s bare foot with his calloused left hand.

Gerald felt extremely uncomfortable with the sudden physical contact, but he also became acutely aware of the lack of real contact he had with others.  He couldn’t remember the last time someone had touched him out of kindness.  “I dropped a bottle of mousevash a moment ago.  I vill be fine, once zhe bleeding stops, zhank you.”  He reached toward the carpenter to give him a polite nudge, indicating he no longer wished him to tend his wound, but he stopped.  The pressure felt good and the pain was finally subsiding.  As the carpenter knelt before him, Gerald noticed a long scar running along the man’s scalp from front to back.

“May I ask, how did you get zhat scar?”  The pain in his foot had almost completely subsided and Gerald began to relax; to drop his guard.  He also noticed the thunder and lightning were relenting.  The last peal of thunder sounded from the northeast instead of overhead.

France.  I was in D-day with the 82nd Airborne.  Unbelievable fight.  German sniper shot my helmet outside Ste Mere-Eglise and the bullet grazed my head.  Bled like a stuck hog, I can tell you!  Scared the daylights out of me, too.  How about you?  Were you in the war?”  The carpenter checked the wound and seemed satisfied that the bleeding had finally stopped.

Gerald’s breathing became shallow.  This was what he was hoping to avoid at all cost: talk of the war.  He had worked so hard to put his war time experiences behind him.  The memories of the prison camps were so horrible, he had hid them in the bottle for many years and had only just recently found a way to escape�"his whole life seemed to him a long series of escapes.  But he had merely found a way around the issue, not through it.  He had dodged the bullet, so to speak.  Now, here before him in the midst of a terrible storm knelt one who may resurrect the horrors Gerald fought to keep entombed.  But he was certain that what he had witnessed was tenfold worse than anything this man could even imagine.  His throat was dry; sandy, rough.  He wanted a drink.  Just one.  One was all it would take.  The carpenter looked up at him expectantly.  He had asked a question.

“Yes,” he found himself saying.  He was again an indifferent spectator inside, watching this odd phenomenon unfolding before him, as when he drank the Listerine.  He was no longer in control, and wasn’t sure if he was even a participant.  Not the real him, in any sense of the word.  So he had said it.  “Yes, I spent many years at German concentration camps. Neuengammen. Ravensbruck. Auschwitz.  Yes, I vas zhere.”  A tear escaped his clear blue eyes and disappeared onto his dark pants.  “I lost my vife and my daughter before I escaped and came to America and haf tried to forget it all ever since.”  Gerald looked down at the floor, avoiding eye contact at all cost.  He desperately wanted this man to leave him as soon as possible and wasn’t sure he even wanted him working on his house any longer.  This was the last thing he could have wanted to happen.  As much as he had alluded to his past, had used it to manipulate others when he wanted to escape responsibility, he never wanted to speak about details.  Each detail was a link in a chain that entwined and ensnared him.  He would dispose of this problem one way or the other.  Gerald Shorter will not let anything spoil his plans.  The wind gusted against the trailer, rocking it back and forth and the rain picked up strength.

Wasser wasser everyvhere...

Part of him really wanted that drink.

“I’m very sorry to hear that, Mr. Shorter.  I truly am.”  The carpenter checked Gerald’s foot one last time before returning to his folding chair.  He looked at the blood stain on his white handkerchief and seemed lost in thought for a moment.  Perhaps he had his own demons to wrestle?  The spectator deep down inside Gerald felt sympathy for this man who had merely sought shelter in a terrible storm; who had instinctively and unselfconsciously given aid to a Gerald’s wound; who ten years ago had himself sacrificed his safety and peace of mind for a greater cause.  Gerald the spectator�"maybe this person was better described as Shorty, the weak one; the drunk, the victim.  This one even felt a little admiration for the carpenter.

“I zhought you said carpentry vas zhe only skill you had ever known?”  The other Gerald�"new Gerald: Mr. Shorter�"pressed the non-issue.  A distraction?  An escape strategy?  No.  The weather was an escape strategy.  Baseball was the easy way out.  This was engagement edging on confrontation.

“What?  Uh, no, I don’t call what I did at Normandy a skill.  I’m glad I did it, but I don’t know if I could do it again.  Somebody had to put the Nazis in their place.  I was just one of many who helped do it.”  The rain suddenly slacked off outside.  The storm had finally broken.

Gerald stood suddenly, the pain in his injured foot all but gone, thanks to this man who sat before him.  “Vell , I see zhe storm has finally subsided.  Please excuse me a moment.  I vill get my shoes and valk you out to your truck.”  He limped to the rear of the trailer and returned fully dressed, including workboots a raincoat.  Gerald opened the door for Joe the Carpenter and followed him outside.  The sky was still a deep purple-black and lightning continued to flash in the distance.  The wind blew with some strength, but it was clear that the storm was passing. 

As the carpenter turned to speak, Gerald Shorter fired two shots from a German 9mm Luger pistol at point blank range, killing Joe the war hero instantly.

Now let’s get that drink, Shorty said.

“Thanks again for letting me out of the storm.  I hope I wasn’t too much of a bother.  Hopefully this was the last of the rain for a few days and we can get that roof on soon.”  Joe extended his rough hand to Gerald, who took it weakly.

“I know you and your men vill do a fine job.  And speaking of jobs, I must make my vay to verk.  I am quite late.”  He looked up at the sky, shielding his eyes from the light mist that continued to fall.  The carpenter made his way through the mud to his truck and slowly drove away.  When the truck was finally out of sight, Gerald pulled the pistol from his jacket pocket and stared at it as if he had no idea how it had come into his possession or what it even was.  Had he really come that close to ruining everything?  After all he had survived, would he now throw his life away over a careless comment?  Over foolish pride?

There was nothing foolish about pride.  Pride had saved Gerald Shorter from certain destruction.  What was foolish was holding on to items from his past that no longer served their purpose. He returned to the camper with a new resolution: he would rid himself of the last part of his troubled past and would finally be free.  The storm had been a symbolic washing, he thought.  He would rise above, just as he had finally exterminated that part of himself he no longer needed mere moments ago.  He had found a final solution.

Inside, he discovered the familiar cardboard box on his bed.  He had no memory of opening it, but no matter.  He returned the Luger to its place and pulled out the ancient, worn Jewish box with the Hebrew writing carved into the hard wood.  Gerald brought it to the homemade incinerator behind the trailer.  He set the box down beside the old oil barrel where he burned his trash and started accumulating dry kindling and newspaper from the tool shed behind the trailer.

Dumping the bits of wood debris and newspaper into the barrel, he reached into his pocket for the Zippo.  Birds chirped among the trees as he lit the paper.  The storm was finally over.  Holes in the sides of the barrel fed a light breeze to the flame, catching the kindling in the burning newspaper’s hot embrace.  The bits of wood crackled and popped while Gerald reached down for the box between his workboots.  He started to set it inside the burning barrel but suddenly stopped.

Would burn better widzhout zhe lid. 

He set the box on a metal chair next to the barrel, where he normally sat while tending the flames, and felt in his pants pocket for his jack-knife.  Pulling it out, he flipped the blade open in one smooth motion and removed the box lid.

The diary sat atop a worn Christian Bible; the wind fanned its pages.  Gerald was transfixed by the motion.  The girl’s face as she waited for her death came to mind; a face so much like his daughter’s.  Slowly, his knife dropped as uncertainty took hold and the memory came to life.

 

The door of the camp Kommandant’s office swung shut with a bang as The Butcher dropped down the steps onto the ground, happy for the reassignment to inventory all sick prisoners that had arrived in the last trainload.  It also meant a change of scenery, which he was starting to crave: a clean desk inside a warm building.  This winter was the coldest anyone ever remembered.  He could finally leave the drudgery of the Siemens plant for a special assignment where those prisoners who were too sick to work were sent to recover.  Or die, it didn’t matter which.  The only thing he could think about was there were no more worker quotas!

A line of bombers crossed the horizon in the distance, drawing his gaze as they left vapor trails across the blue sky on their way to Berlin.  It was a daily occurrence now, but for some reason they left the camps alone.  Hamburg was a burnt shell and apparently no longer a strategic target.  He watched the steady stream of B-24 Liberator’s as they disappeared into the distance while small groups of Messerschmitt fighters climbed in futile chase.  Each day the number of bombers streaming across the sky grew larger while fewer and fewer fighters scrambled to intercept.

Even a stalwart Nazi like he could see the end approaching, but he didn’t know what to make of it.  After living the last decade with such concrete certainty in his National Socialist convictions, that vision had become muddled since his daughter’s death.  An unusual spring snow had covered the compound, not quite turning it to mud, but the sucking sound his boots made as he strode forward intruded on his thoughts.  Across the parade ground, a line of gray prisoners snaked out of Building 44.  Ashes floated across the line from two tall smoke stacks at the other end of the compound.

Ah, the next batch to go.

His eyes scanned the prisoners as the females begin their final journey.  One could hardly call these shuffling skeletons women.  Good riddance, he thought.  There was still purpose in these final days of war, cleansing the earth of its Jewish infestation.  Like bathing a dog, letting the water wash away the grime and stink and fleas.

That’s when he saw her.

Katerina?

He ran across the compound toward the line of women.  They all shrank back, the line parting like the Red Sea, the prisoners terrified to see The Butcher racing at them. 

All except Katerina.

The girls’ long hair framed beautiful eyes that sparkled in the afternoon sun.  She looked so much like her mot…

He stopped five feet from her and just stared, a knot turning in his stomach.  It’s not Kat.  Of course not.  She’s dead.

He stood there, mouth agape, trying to figure out how such a thing was possible.  She returned his gaze and…smiled.  She looked so much like his Katerina, it hurt not to grab her and take her in his arms.

One of the guards approached, “Are you okay, Sergeant?”

The Butcher had to pry his eyes away from the doppelganger.  “I’m fine,” he snapped.  The guard retreated, leaving the two of them momentarily alone. 

“What is your name?” he asked the girl.

“My…my name?”  she asked incredulously.  “Rachel.  Rachel Levine.”

“I…” he stopped, not sure of what to say.  He couldn’t get over the stunning resemblance.  “No, what is your number.  I meant your number.”  He reached for her arm to examine the serial number that had replaced her humanity before arriving at Ravensbrück, causing her to drop her meager possessions in the snow.

“KEEP MOVING,” shouted one of the guards at the rear.  His charges were starting to mass, destroying the well-ordered line.  The queue started moving again, one step in front of the other, the practiced order coming from years of going to the forced labor sites.  They’d be going somewhere else this time, he knew.  A final trip from which there’d be no return.

No return.

Even if the girl wasn’t his Katerina, she was so much like her that his heart ached.  He needed time to speak with her; to know her thoughts, her feelings.  He needed the chance to reconnect with what he’d lost forever.

The Butcher glanced toward the head of the line, already marching through the gates for the last time to the waiting trucks.  He didn’t have much time. He ran to the Ausfeherin in charge of this group of prisoners.  The pale blond woman stood with a clipboard and checked off each of the prisoners as they passed through the gate.  Germans were nothing if not efficient.

As soon as he saw the woman with the clipboard, his heart sank.  The prisoners called her “The Stomping Mare” after a rumor that she stomped two children to death in front of their mothers.  He stopped beside her, controlling his breathing and trying not to sound anxious. 

“Do you have a Rachel, eh, number A27364 on your list?”

The prisoners continued to file past as the woman looked up, her cold eyes regarding him with disdain. 

“Of course.  You know that, Sergeant Schroeder.  You prepared the list!”

“Yes, yes,” he said testily.  “Her name…ah, number wasn’t supposed to be on the list.”

“Well, she is,” said the woman, glancing at her watch before she motioned for the guards to speed up the line.  He tried to look nonchalant, as if the girl meant nothing to him. 

“There was an error.  She’s not to go with this group.  I’ll remove her and…”

“You’ll do no such thing!” the woman barked fiercely.  “This list was already approved and forwarded to the Heinrich Himmler himself.”

“Himmler?” he asked.

“Of course, you fool.  Someone has to keep track of what is happening in all of the camps.  You have your little quotas of tasks to complete.  More important people have bigger quotas.  I’ll not put my head on the chopping block because you’ve found yourself a girlfriend.”

“She’s a child!”

 “I don’t care about your personal fetishes,” she said.  “Now go away, I have work to do.”

“I…”

The woman turned on him, her eyes on fire.  “GO NOW!” The heat in her words drew one of the guards over.  She motioned to him.  “If Sergeant Schroeder interferes with the prisoners, he is to be shot.  Do you understand?”  The guard, a fair skinned boy who couldn’t be a day over eighteen, looked between the two and appeared confused.

“Do you understand?!” she repeated. 

The guard nodded as he moved closer, his machine pistol at the ready.  Schroeder knew he’d lost.  He stepped back and raised his hands.  He wouldn’t leave though, causing the guard to remain with the gun trained on him.

Gerhardt Schroeder�"The Butcher�"looked down the line and locked eyes with Ka…Rachel.  The girl kept her place in line, her mouth opening as if to speak.  Instead of words, he heard the girl break into a song.  The tune started slowly, but grew as the women nearby shook off their tears and joined her.  He’d never heard the song before, but it was beautiful.  He followed the line a few steps and stopped when he heard a rifle bolt slide forward.  He felt something with his boot beneath the snow.  It was a wooden box Rachel had been carrying.  She had simply left all her possessions there in the mud and snow.  Her work was done.

Rachel was still singing as The Stomping Mare waived her through the gate.  She dusted the falling ash from her clipboard and drew a line through the girl’s number.

Germans are nothing if not efficient.

 

The loose diary pages stopped flapping in the wind and his eyes caught a sentence so boldly underlined he couldn’t help but be drawn to it out of curiosity.  He pulled the remains of the diary out.  Shading his eyes against the emerging morning sun, he read the final thoughts of a girl who had to know she was about to die.

Gerald didn’t know what to make of it, but figured out the first part must have been a prayer.  He flipped through the pages, seeing each one with the same format.  Some longer, some shorter, but she always seemed to…

Gerald Shorter stood perfectly still.

 

Help me to reach out to The Butcher.  Give me the words to say to reach his heart.  Give me courage to face his anger with love.  Give me the strength to speak Your truth without compromise. 

 

And give me peace whatever the outcome.

 

The schutzstaffel guard, the man called The Butcher by the prisoners, now living under an assumed name, snorted. 

Clearly, He didn’t give you enough strength. 

He turned to the next page, wondering what other fairy tales the girl might be telling herself.  It was empty.  Gerald flipped through the other pages, every one of them.  All empty.  And he knew why.

An isolated tear ran down his cheek, recognizing that the very day she’d written she wanted to speak to him in love, he had jotted her number down on the list to exterminate.

The wind carried the loose diary pages up into the air and out of sight. The thought of burning the box no longer appealed to him.  He couldn’t destroy it either, which would erase the girls’ life from the world entirely.  Something about doing that seemed wrong.  He had to make up for this, but he couldn’t bear the thought of keeping the thing in the trailer or looking at it ever again.  Wiping his sleeve across his face, Gerald went back to the wooden shed at the back of his property.  He rummaged around until he found a shovel and a metal container large enough to hold the Jew-girl’s box and walked to the foot of a large fir tree.

He plunged the shovel into the thick sod and lifted grass and mud out.  One shovel full followed another; he worked until he had excavated a small pit beside the tree.  Gerald put the beautiful box within the metal container and set it at the bottom of the hole.  Without ceremony, he slid the mound of mud and dirt back over the top, filling the hole and burying the burning reminder of his past.

Or so he thought.

Tossing the shovel back into the shed, he washed his hands at the spigot sticking out of the ground beside the trailer.  He rubbed damp hands over his face, erasing the mild sheen of labor-induced sweat.  His shirt was soaked underneath the raincoat.  Exhaling slowly, he closed his eyes and tried to relax, but images surfaced unbidden and unwanted from the dark corners of his mind.  He saw the pages of the diary floating back down to earth, like the ashes from the furnaces that ran non-stop near the end of the war.  Each page morphed into a face and flew toward him, their mouths gaped open, screaming, wailing, accusing; the ghosts of Ravensbrück coming back to haunt him.

Leaning against the trailer, he clutched at his head, trying to make them leave through sheer force of his will.  A final image began to form, dark hair and dark eyes, a soft face he knew well.  It was his daughters’…or, maybe it was the Jew-girl.  Gerald rubbed his eyes and stifled a choking cry as his memory cheated him.  The two girls looked so much alike.  One he would kill for.  The other he’d helped kill.

How ‘bout zhat drink?

His hands started to shake.  Gerald clutched them together to stop the quivering, but he couldn’t do anything to stop the intense thirst overtaking his parched throat.  He struggled to swallow the painful lump.  He wanted nothing more than to go downtown and have a drink, but knew he couldn’t.

No!  You’ll feel better vonce you get to verk.

He nodded, as if supporting his own assertion, knowing he might be deluding himself, but it did feel different.  Once he arrived at work he became a new man, someone other people respected.  Or, at least, he became a man they didn’t hate. 

Gerald just wished he felt that way about himself.  His coworkers knew him as Gerald Shorter, a Polish émigré who’d Americanized his name after escaping Hitler’s rampaging armies.  During the workday, he thrived.  No ghosts, no alcohol, and with none of the temper outbursts he was famous for in the camps.  A lot of that had to do with working the twelve step program.  The Big Book was his guide; his Bible.  Today he had taken a big step: he had found a higher power.  He had found him while trapped in the trailer with the pitiful carpenter.  He felt a part of himself had been resurrected.  He had one last vermin to exterminate. 

Shorty.

With the box buried, he wondered if it would get any easier to cope.  During the day at least.  The nights were different, when he was alone with his thoughts; consumed with the past.  Gerald Shorter disappeared as the evening sun dipped under the horizon, leaving Shorty to fend for himself against the derelict ghosts flooding his mind.  Poor, pathetic, weak Shorty.

Standing with his back to the trailer, the tortured voices still called to him, though from a distance.  He had experienced a strange rebirth in the presence of the carpenter.  Not Gerald.  Gerhardt.  Gerhardt was decisive.  Gerhardt was fearless.  Gerhardt lived with purpose.  Gerhardt would take care of Shorty and lead Gerald where he needed to go.

Zhey vill have to vait, he thought.  Zhey can’t have me yet.

But he knew the voices would return.  He checked his beautiful watch; swallowed hard, forcing the haunting memories back into the past.  Gerald clutched his keys and walked away from the trailer.

Time for work.

 

* * *



© 2010 Kris St. James


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Added on March 9, 2010
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Author

Kris St. James
Kris St. James

Birmingham, AL



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I'm a Southern Gothic writer who enjoys telling stories about the forgotten. I appreciate all thoughtful critiques and will gladly reciprocate. If you don't like my work, please say so, but please.. more..

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