And They Pillaged the Dead
David Cameron lives with his wife and three children near Boston, Massachusetts where he works in higher education. He spent one year as a reader for the literary journal Tin House and is now fiction editor for Talking Writing. This is his first published piece of fiction. A forthcoming story will appear in Digital Americana. He can be reached by email here.
The strangest part was that smoking hash with grandma wasn’t the strangest part. But no one else wanted to hear it. Like Brendan’s sister.
“You couldn’t spend a few hours with Omi without doing drugs in her house?”
“And my car.”
“That wasn’t your car. That was Mom and Dad’s car. You visit Omi and then do drugs in mom’s car?”
There was more to the story. Tons more. But his moral collapse was all that stuck.
. . .
Omi meant grandma. It was the German word. Her name was Eva, and she and her sister Inge, who she lived with, had grown up in Hamburg during the Second World War. As a small child, Brendan listened to gruesome stories involving shrapnel and air raid shelters and Berlin hospital wards and when he was older, the carnal atrocities of the Russian occupation in the east.
He hadn’t seen Omi in years.
It had been whispered, but seldom discussed, that Omi was prone to spells of darkness, which at times had resulted in her needing to “go away” for indefinite periods. He couldn’t help wondering if this part of her, this shadow, explained why whenever he thought of her, he immediately recalled a certain photo taken in the mid 1930s, outdoors at a campground, her in the front row of about a dozen stern-faced and stringently sober teenage girls, white blouses with black ties and ash-colored skirts: a group photo of the Hitler youth.
. . .
Brendan thought of that photo as he drove to visit Omi in Pennsylvania, having just left his latest residence: his parents’ house in Long Island. It was a beautiful home, thousands of square feet of colonial living space, a sprawling lime-colored lawn, a built-in kidney-shaped pool. But luxury had nothing to do with it. He was there because he’d run out of couches to crash on.
There was, in fact, a long lineage of relatives and friends whose hospitality he had drained (including his sister’s who had only tolerated him for one night), and he knew damn well that mom and dad, despite their membrane of benevolence, were covertly making the case for kicking him out of their gated-community nest and back into the urban wild. And if he were them, he’d do the same.
. . .
A year ago, as 1999 folded into 2000, his life had fallen apart.
He lost his job as an HTML coder, his garage-rock music career was going nowhere (the major-label signing frenzy of the early 90s leaving him in the dust), and worst of all, his girlfriend of almost a decade, Nadine, a half-Thai half-Dutch photographer who made her own clothes and sold them at shows, walked off with nearly everything he owned. He had discovered this late on a Tuesday after waking up on the kitchen floor.
He knew perfectly well why she chose such a vengeful exit. He had taunted her into leaving through habits like lying on the couch all day breathing bubble hash from a vaporizer and searching the wall for beauty in the patterns of cracked plaster while she, often fighting tears, described how watching him self-destruct was like swallowing glass, one shard at a time. Also, he cheated.
But he never expected she’d steal his favorite things: his Gibson SG and Fender amp, his collection of vintage Keds, his Japanese comics, his zoot suit, the vaporizer, and that LP of John Coltrane’s Blue Train, autographed by his father’s father, a crazy drunk and semi-professional musician who insisted up to his dying day—which occurred when Brendan was four—that he had played drums on three of the album’s five tracks. Brendan was probably the only person on earth who still believed that story, and it was a belief he guarded.
Over the years, Brendan had cultivated an image of soulful indifference to material things, but as soon as these possessions were gone he tried frantically to get them back. Nadine had moved in with her brother, a cop, a guy who hated him so much that Brendan suspected something Freudian in their relationship.
After months of couch-crashing, moving in with mom and dad was humiliating. It rubbed in his face the unavoidable truth that so far, at age 30, he had failed spectacularly at being an adult. It fueled the terror that he may never pull it off, that he simply lacked the courage to ever be anything more than an expiring adolescent.
Why not take off now before they kick him out?
But some vestige of dormant wisdom compelled him to stay, to reach back to a time that predated Nadine and his whole façade of punk-rock stardom, to grab hold of something that had existed long before these last ten years of post-college life. Childhood was a place where tomorrow could mean anything because today meant nothing. Maybe some totem still existed somewhere that could shuttle him back into the past and reveal why the present was so shattered.
. . .
As he drove his parents’ Toyota Avalon straight into the October sun, the dirt speckling the windshield shimmering like glitter, spread out on the passenger seat were CDs that at any other time would have fueled the ride: Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Television, New York Dolls, The Stooges,and last but not least, his own imploded brainchild, Mary Jane Rotten Crotch.
But what currently piped through the car’s stereo system—and the windows were sealed tight in the event someone he knew blew past him on the interstate—was his mother’s copy of Rumours.
When he was four or five, he recalled a brief period when his mom played Fleetwood Mac relentlessly, shouting along and moving to “Don’t Stop” while he blocked her path, begging her to shush. And sometimes when he charged her thighs and she grabbed his wrists and he tried to pull away, their struggle dissolved into a dance.
Now, this one song, this template for all musical clichés, lured him back into his childhood living room, and he saw it as a child would see it, eyes level to the surface of the radiator, books stacked in shelves beyond reach, dust particles levitating in columns of light that fell through the high windows, and his mother’s waist, her blouse tucked loosely into a woven leather belt, his mind clear, his heart accessible.
. . .
After two hours on the road he arrived. Eva greeted him at the door.
“Hi, Omi,” he said.
“Hello, Brendan,” she said, holding open her arms. Hands on his shoulders, she kissed each of his cheeks. She smelled of coffee and perfume.
“You look like you are a beatnik,” she said, jiggling a tuft of his choppy sand-colored hair. He had tried to look as “normal” as possible, remembering to remove his eyebrow ring and to wipe off any traces of black eye makeup. His “Black Girls Have More Fun” t-shirt was hidden inside of a russet colored V-neck sweaterthat covered his narrow torso.
But he should have shaved. And the rip in the armpit of his Army jacket sagged like a mortal wound. Still, hearing “beatnik” spoken with a German accent made him smile. He had always loved how the accents of his mother’s relatives roused their speech into new and spirited arrangements of all-too-familiar melodies. The difference between a German accent and Long Island American English was the difference between a French horn and a car horn.
“Come,” she said, holding the door.
The old house was spacious, free of the family mementos grandmothers typically horde. The air had the faint, charred smell of a carpet that’s just been vacuumed.
Eva looked magnificent for a woman of eighty. She wore a silky red blouse and dark slacks, and her pepper-colored hair, fresh from the salon, was styled and firm. Her face, clearly beautiful when she was young, was handsome, strong. She stood tall, her spine so far having withstood the force of age.
“Inge is sleeping now,” Eva said. “Her nap, every afternoon. Sit. I will get you a cold drink. Coca-Cola?”
“Thank you, Omi,” he said and took a seat on the Danish sofa, a piece of furniture he immediately recognized, the wooden legs and armrests glistening like marble, the bluish gray cotton surface so tightly upholstered he could probably bounce a silver dollar on it. It must have been fifty years old, but it looked as good as new. He reached over to the ceramic dish on the coffee table and helped himself to a Viennese chocolate.
He looked around the room: surfaces utterly dust-free, paintings that at one time must have seemed subversively experimental, light from the southern-exposed bay window gushing over the sofa and arm chairs and the radiator—so familiar and yet now so alien. The room’s mid-century modernism had changed little since his earliest memories of it, memories like mother prodding him to refine his posture, to accommodate Omi’s queries, “Who do you love most? Tell us a joke! Sing!”the smell of boiling meat wafting through the air and mingling with piano sonatas that seemed to issue from nowhere in particular, background music for Omi’s stories about life in a war-torn land that to him felt as ancient as Rome. All as he sat on that very same sofa. He was a prodigal returning to a home he had abandoned, one in which he barely recognized himself. It didn’t feel good, but it felt right, and it had been ages since he had chosen feeling right over feeling good.
“Here you are,” Eva said, entering the living room and handing him a tall and narrow glass filled with ice cubes and fizzy, crackling cola. She set it down on the coffee table atop a white, needle-lace coaster. She drank the same.
They chatted idly for about a half-hour, a kind of conversation he almost never had, the kind that stuck to unarguable topics (the weather, how there was rain, how there was sunshine). They chuckled over the Y2K frenzy, mourned the recent 9/11 attacks, after which he guided her on a tour of the tattoos swathing his forearms. The ability to navigate intergenerational dialogue made him feel older than his years.
“Ah, here she is, little sister!” Eva suddenly announced.
And across the house, shoulders arched over a walker, Inge approached, moving slowly but firm, unfaltering, like a tortoise.
Any stranger would have considered Eva’s comment “little sister” a nasty joke. But while Inge easily looked ten years older, she was actually three years Eva’s junior. To highlight this contrast, Inge wore candy pink polyester pants, a red sweater, and a bright floral patterned vest that looked psychedelic. Curved across her messy white hair was a headband with a sprouting clump of red paper flowers at the top. As for the finale: white sneakers.
Brendan wasn’t sure if he should rise and give her a hand. She made her way right at them, steady and determined, staring at Brendan through black-rimmed glasses that looked more like goggles. Slowly, he sank back down into his chair. When she was no more than ten feet away, she halted, looked at Eva, and spoke, each word scoured by unrelenting German phonetics.
“He works at a zoo? Look at him! He works at the zoo!”
“He works at a magazine,” Eva said, shaking her head.
“Website,” he corrected, and then added, “worked.”
“Ja, him? Ha! He goes to the zoo!” Inge said, resuming her inexorable gait.
. . .
For dinner Eva served a stew prepared in white cream sauce ladled over rice. It was a dish he had only ever eaten in her home.
“You’re quite the chef, Omi,” he said, feeling the distance between childhood and this very moment collapse as the pungent, flowery blend moved over the back of his tongue.
“You are kind,” Eva said.
More than any other place in the house, the dining room evoked another era, a grandmother’s world from generations ago. The wooden table was solid and vast, wide stretches of worn, dark surface, inlaid with rosewood patterns. With only the three of them, it felt stark. The china hutch-buffet that spanned the narrow wall behind Eva also seemed imported from another time. The glass cabinets encasing plates and serving dishes and crystal were as clean and free of dust as every other surface, yet the objects inside, from certain angles, looked skewed, shimmering with irregularity, edges slightly buckling and then straightening—if you moved while looking, a prism-effect of century old windows.
Eva and Brendan drank white wine from crystal glasses with beveled surfaces. Inge drank beer from the bottle. Like Brendan and Eva, Inge too ate heartily, but he had the feeling she would have shown the same enthusiasm for Spam.
“So, Brendan,” Eva said, dabbing the corners of her mouth with the embroidered edge of a white napkin, “we are all sorry to hear about what you have been experiencing. Your fiancé. We are sad for you.”
He would have corrected her, but “fiancé” felt like such a respectable term. “Oh well, you know, shi—stuff happens,” he said. “I’m better off, she’s better off. But thank you.”
Inge stared at him with the tip of the bottle suctioned between her lips.
“I’m actually not all that sure I’m better off,” he continued, shrugging. “I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy. I’ve been really lonely.” He swallowed. “Family, friends have helped out, but I can be a handful. Seriously. I’ll think of something. But thanks for all this.” He gestured sweepingly at the table. “I think I might be starting to see things that I’ve been ignoring for way too long, and that’s kind of why I’m glad I’m here. Not sure if that makes any sense.”
Eva nodded as she poured herself more wine. She offered up the bottle to him. “Nothing is as new as something that has been long forgotten,” she said as she poured him another glass. “Brendan, you are a handsome young man.”
“You are,” she said, setting the bottle down, “even though you hide it. You have a strong face, generous eyes. And you have character—long ears and a short tongue, as my father would say. Your next wife will be good to you.”
“Well, I certainly appreciate the thought, but let’s be honest. It’s not her fault, it’s mine. The whole mess.” Her misuse of the word “wife” had unexpectedly emboldened him. “She’s no saint, but I was the one who… I was the one with the bad habits. I was… in all honesty, I was unfaithful—among other things.”
Acknowledging his sexual appetites made it hard to swallow. Inge stared. “I’m sorry. That’s just the way it is. I’ve spent too long trying to cover it up. I need to start telling the truth. That’s my new resolution. From now on, truth.” He decided to skip the drugs. Honesty had limits.
Still, he looked around the table, expecting some sort of proxy cheek-pinch from the elders, something that demonstrated their pride in his dedication to virtue. But Eva continued eating, scrutinizing her plate, one eyebrow raised as she slid rice onto her vintage fork with her vintage knife. Inge was pinching a strip of gristle, lips condensed.
Brendan looked over Inge’s shoulder and into the living room, noting how the evening had been leeching the flailing light, leaving the room dim and grainy. The chandelier above their table offered the only luminescence in the house. He could see the back of Eva’s silver hair reflecting in the skewed buffet glass behind her, and as she shook her head at his words, she and her likeness moved in synchronicity like two gears meshing.
“You should not be sorry,” Eva said. “It does you nothing good. Besides, you are a man, and forever is a long bargain.”
Inge, having successfully extracted the gristle, wiped it like a booger on the edge of her plate.
Brendan croqueted a caper around with the fork tines until Eva finally lifted her eyes and gazed at him over the rims of her half-moon bifocals. It was a while before she spoke.
“Brendan, you are a sweet boy and a good man. But here is your choice: You are the anvil, or you are the hammer. It is one or the other. You feel good being a… a penitent. Fine. But too much being humble is narzissmus. Do you understand that?”
He wasn’t sure. Her words evoked for him one particular evening of Nadine-induced psychodrama, her on the closed toilet seat with her head between her knees while he ranted about how, if it would make her happy, he’d wallow in remorse like a baby in its own filth—a thought that was sickly appealing—and he wondered if some people fucked up on purpose just so they could slosh in their own penitence. Narzissmus.
She went on. “Your mother tells me that she took many things of yours, this wife. That she stole from you and refuses to return them. Is that something you feel guilty of?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “But you know, it’s like Shakespeare said, “He who steals my purse steals trash.” You know? Stuff is just stuff. “But he who steals my good name makes me poor indeed.” You know that one?”
Eva smiled indulgently, then swiveled the wine in her glass. “A proverb for the sentimental.”
And he thought once more about his Coltrane LP. It had become a family joke, evidence of the wretched life of his father’s father, the idiocy of giving an almost-three-year-old a jazz album for Christmas, just an excuse to once again carry on about how if it wasn’t for his altercations with some highly influential recording engineer, he would have shared percussion credit on the album. Brendan alone defended this story, arguing that the old man did drum the post-war jazz circuits in New York and Chicago. Later in his life he even tried to eke out a musical living in LA in the 1970s, a card-carrying member of Local 47 until, when Brendan was still a pre-schooler, grandpa’s girlfriend found him dead in Compton in the passenger seat of a Buick Skylark.
He had signed the album, “Never stop bebop. With love, grandpop.”
And now he realized that under Nadine’s watch the record was nothing more than an old dreg in a storage bin in a dank basement, grandpa’s words abandoned with the milk crates and wine boxes stuffed with misfits, and the desire to get it back from her at all costs, and to have the act of doing so degrade her, seized him.
Omi said. “Pick up your fork.”
The request confused him. So Eva demonstrated. She picked up her fork.
“Look at it closely. What do you see?”
A fork. But on closer inspection, a beautiful fork. The handle, engraved with a floral pattern encircled in a motif that looked serpentine, and at the base an ornate, cursive “R,” felt smooth and textured against his thumb. But Omi’s last name was Eichberger, so he asked, “What’s R stand for?”
“What?” Eva said, the question coming from the back of her throat, German shrapnel cutting through the skin of that single English word. “Rosenbaum! Do you know Rosenbaum?”
Vaguely. Distant relatives of Mom’s and Omi. But he was afraid to say anything more.
“It is time,” Eva said, rising. “It is time for cake and Cognac!”
. . .
He had already drunk too much wine (all white, which typically made for a bloodthirsty hangover) but the word “Reserve”in the Cognac label caught his eye. The three of them had moved to the TV room. Eva switched on the two rod iron lamps, one on each end of the sofa, then returned to the kitchen. The lampshades glowed a dull, opaque orange, two symmetrical setting suns. As Brendan sat on the couch reading the label on the Cognac bottle, Chateau de Fontpinot, he noted a silver cigarette box with a hinged lid at the edge of a shelf in the bookcase lining the wall. Beside it was a series of framed, black-and-white photo portraits, and below that, LPs lining the two bottom shelves. Inge sat across from him in a rocking chair, filling her pipe, and he asked her, “Got Coltrane?”
She looked at him, her tongue working at something distasteful on her gums.
“Ach, Mozart.” She held the pipe between her teeth and lit it with a silver lighter, her crooked thumb working the lighter’s wheel deftly. “Mozart,” she said again, sucking air into the pipe bowl. “Mozart is all of this da da da da-da.” She embellished her point by plinking the air with an arthritically bent index finger. “Mozart is for the children. Not me.” She drew smoke into her mouth and let it drift idly through the gaps in her large teeth. The tobacco smoldered.
“Then who do you like?”
“I like so many!” she said. “All of the B’s. I love Bach. I love Brahms. I love Berlioz. Beethoven when he was old. I love Strauss. And so many others. And I have them all.”
“Ach mein Gott!” Eva said, setting down the tray on the coffee table. She cut three pieces from the round, orange dessert, licking the icing off her thumb. “The smell of smoke. It is sickening.”
But Inge ignored her.
“Rosenbaum,” Eva began. “You must know this name, Brendan. When schwester Inge was a baby, our mother, your great-grandmother, died of an infection. She died in the hospital after many nights. Our father, your great-grandfather, soon married again, a Jew, Hannah Rosenbaum, a woman older than he, a woman who had lost her husband and two sons in the first war. One daughter, older than us, all she had. Hannah Rosenbaum was a well-off woman, almost rich, at least to us. And she raised us with the whip. When we would cry, she would tell us that to taste what is bitter is to know what is sweet. Do you agree with that Brendan? That is what the cruel say. As we were older, Inge and I, dressed for a night of dancing, she called me a prostitute. I can still see her as she says this, tall, black hair pulled tight, her chin, her lips, her black evening gown.”
Eva sat in an armchair beside her sister, who had begun to rummage through a wicker basket beside her chair. Inge’s body language, lavish with disinterest, clearly indicated that she would need to occupy herself while big sister spoke.
“So, the Jews began to go away, but not Hannah. Any Jew married to a Christian was saved. But then, as you must know, in 1941, our father, her protector, died. Mounting a staircase, he collapsed. It was his heart. And Hannah was alone.
“Inge and I had been sent to Omi and Grossvater in Braunlage, in the mountains, away from the cities, which soon would be rubble. On Grossvater’s birthday, Hannah Rosenbaum came and showed us the letter. It was from the Hamburg police, instructing her to arrive at the police station on Monday, with a change of clothes and one toothbrush. The entire letter, that sentence. Brendan, do you know this? Has your mother told you this?”
His body was still acclimating to the atmospheric variance of white wine and Cognac. He shook his head.
“Well, you know what it meant, the letter, as did she, as did we. We say no one knew what happened at the camps. And we didn’t. But we did. We saw no one come back. People, families. All at once, gone. And we knew the old and the sick did not live, and we knew Hannah would not live. So did she. Hannah knew that to die at home was better than going to some barracks. That is what she came to tell us. She even showed us the bottle with the pills.
“Grossvater jumped up and said he’d take her to Switzerland, and she laughed. If he were apprehended—and he would be!—everyone, man and woman and baby, all of us, to the camps. They would rip out the whole garden. Who would risk that? No. Hannah Rosenbaum would die at her own hand. Alone. With all the possessions she loved. She said, cry for me now, but don’t cry then.
“I didn’t cry. I was young. Inge, too. Inge didn’t cry. What to think?We hated Nazis, but Hannah had been cruel. The scars on our backside, our hands, they bore witness. So confusing.
“But I have a story, Brendan. Listen. Hannah Rosenbaum did not want to die alone. She wanted to be with someone. Most, she needed to be sure the pills did the job. How horrible would it be to take all the pills, but then, a miracle, she wakes! Someone, someone she could trust, must be there to make sure her eyes never open again.
“But who? The Rosenbaum family, they had vanished. Her daughter was lucky, living with a husband in Sweden. A few left for Britain early on, some for Zurich, and those who stayed behind—who knows. Omi and Grossvater, too old. They wept. They had no stomach for this. So who?
“Who could do this without temptation to make her live?”
“Me,” Inge said through a cloud of smoke, knitting together two balls of pink yarn into something neither hat nor scarf. The pipe was still wedged between her teeth. She puffed relentlessly, the red paper flowers in her headband bobbing as she nodded.
Eva looked at her, an accusatory glare. She began to nod.
“Yes,” she said. “You.”
“I’m confused,” Brendan said. “She was… what?”
“The chosen one,” Eva said. She held the large and bulbous Cognac glass in her hand, swirling it. “She was chosen because…. Well, you can see.” Eva glanced at Inge, then rolled her eyes slowly and melodramatically for Brendan’s audience. “Hannah needed a flesh and blood soul whose heart was salt. And Inge, let us just say, also had no love for Hannah Rosenbaum, and no one knew that better than the old woman herself.”
Inge shrugged, then let her shoulder slowly drop, and Brendan thought he heard a joint cluck somewhere in this gesture. The pipe had migrated to the edge of her mouth. Her eyes never strayed from the knitting project on her lap.
“So the family agreed, and Inge, barely even sixteen, took the train back to Hamburg with Hannah that Sunday. Inge had one objective: See that Hannah Rosenbaum is dead on Monday morning.”
Brendan wished that Inge would say something, give some kind of voice to the tragedy. Her knitting compelled her more than the story, and that unsettled him. He wondered if she was knitting anything in particular, or if the rhythm of pins and yarn was simply automatic.
“So they arrived at Hannah’s apartment in Hamburg. It was strange for Inge to be there. It was familiar, and it was strange. Pictures of Hannah’s first husband, her sons. Her daughter and son-in-law. Pictures of our father. But of us, nothing.
“In the dining room, on the old, dark table, the one Inge and I sat at every night for years, never allowed to speak, she had placed flowers. In the vase that had been her mother’s vase, chamomile, edelweiss, spindle. The flowers smelled like the blood of summer.
“Inge told her how lovely the flowers were, and Hannah said, ‘Yes, thank you. Today there must be something beautiful. When you are done, you can have them.’ She said this plainly. You see, Hannah Rosenbaum was a proud woman.
“For much of the afternoon, Hannah stayed in the kitchen, cooking. She prepared a small feast. It was early in the war, and food was still plentiful if you had money. Inge helped stuff the chicken. She thought, ‘Chicken, when was the last time I had that?’ Chicken was a delicacy in those days. A holiday supper. Inge chopped leaks for Hannah to steam, and potatoes. There were baskets of potatoes, and those also Hannah said to have when it was done.
“But mostly Inge was left to her own.
“What must it have felt for Inge to be back in this place? And for this. For me, who knows. I am sentimental. And you too. But I think Inge said to herself, ‘To hell with all this.’”
“Ach!” Inge said, the sound rising from her mouth in a smoky gray cloud. “There is no hell. Do not make it up. It was a fine house!”
“You can tell the story if you like,” Eva said. “Go ahead. It is yours. Please. Tell us.”
“Nonsense,” Inge said. “You are the narrator. We are the audience. Just tell it right.”
“Do not test me,” Eva warned her sister. And she sighed and waited and soon Inge was once again absorbed in her knitting.
“Well, now, Hannah brought the chicken out to the table on a tray, scolding Inge for the mess. Inge had found a box in the living room chest that contained photographs of Hannah’s family, the family before our family. The photographs were spread on the table and Hannah said, ‘Put those away, now! It is time!’ The photos didn’t bother Hannah. It was the clutter. And Inge remembered how Hannah used to always say, ‘A place for everything, and everything in its place.’ Inge was fascinated by these pictures, and longed to ask Hannah many questions, but she put the photos back into the box and put the box back into the living room chest.
“Inge wondered, what happens to these photographs when it is over? And what happens to all these beautiful things of Hannah’s?
“The dinner was delicious, especially compared to Omi’s stews, food with no taste, us picking bones to make shapes on our plates. Inge had not eaten such good food in years.
“Hannah Rosenbaum ate little, and that should not surprise. They drank wine from the same glasses you and I drank from here at dinner. And Inge, thinking now was time to reveal her soul, placed her hand on the table beside Hannah’s, but Hannah said to her, ‘It is easy at a time like this for you to be tricked into a feeling you think is love, but it is not. It is something different, and I feel it too.’”
And deep inside of Brendan, the elevator cable supporting his stomach snapped, saved in the last second by an emergency catch. He swallowed a gasp inside a fake throat-clearing.
“I’m sorry,” he said abruptly. “I need to…. I think I left some allergy medication in the car. Will you excuse me? I’m sorry. This is a great story, really. Do you mind if I just pop out and come right back?”
He wasn’t sure if either of them grasped his question. Eva looked to her sister as if for translation.
Inge said, “All young people are allergic these days.”
Brendan laughed nervously. “Yes, yes, Aunt Inge, they are.” And Inge resumed her knitting.
“Go. Then return,” Eva said.
. . .
Part of him wanted to hit the gas and take off, just drive, maybe route through Philly or Manhattan, take in a show, find a place to crash. Just flee the heaviness.
He thought about this as he sat behind the wheel, his hand pressed against the keys in his coat pocket.
He reached under the passenger seat and took out the brown lunch bag. Usually he liked to mix the cough syrup with Sprite or 7Up, even throw in pieces of candy. A friend called it “Texas tea.” But now he simply swigged straight from the prescription bottle. He’d grown to appreciate that orange-jelly aftertaste. He took out his keys and turned on the car battery. The dashboard lights glowed, igniting Stevie Nicks’s alto rasp. Little by little the codeine snaked through his skin, a warm tickling itch crawling toward his fingernails. Soon he was buoyant, his head filled with pure, perfect blood.
He leaned back onto the headrest and ejected Stevie, displacing her with Iggy. Fun House had always been his favorite. Something in the unalloyed animal attitude of Iggy’s howling contained the power to do what little else could: make him feel normal. As the jungle beat rattled his bones, he reached for his wooden hash pipe, the one he bought in England years ago, then pinched off a corner of brick, rolling the hash between his finger and thumb for a bit then stuffed it into the pipe bowl like a dentist packing a tooth, topping it with a sprinkling of lemon kush.
He turned off the battery and, keys in pocket, pipe in hand, headed back to the house.
. . .
“Hi,” he said, reentering the TV room, struggling with his breath. Inge remained absorbed in her knitting, but Eva eyed him closely. On the coffee table, beside the cake, sat a china tea set: three cups on saucers, a pot, a creamer, and a sugar cube bowl, blue roses and soft green leaves painted below the gold trim.
“Welcome back,” Eva said, spooning two icy white cubes into her tea cup. She pinched the spoon between her thumb and finger and stirred slowly, then rested the utensil on the saucer. Brendan kept standing.
“Hey, look,” he said. “I’m wondering, I’d hate for Inge to smoke alone, so do you mind if I smoke my pipe as well?” He held it up, a rust-colored cylinder, Sanskrit symbols painted in ribbon script, a thumb-sized smoke stack for the bowl.
“That is no pipe,” Inge barked. “It is a kazoo!”
Brendan buckled back into the couch. He balanced the pipe in his lips with two fingers and angled the lighter over the bowel. “You mind?” he asked Eva through the corner of his mouth.
She brought the teacup to her lips.
“Please continue, Omi,” he said as he exhaled, the peppery sensation dabbling his tongue like needlepoint, a honey narcotic balm. Everything around him moved at the speed of dreams. He poured himself more Cognac.
“What else is there to say?” Eva said, resting the teacup on the edge of the shelf, then fanning the air beneath her nose with her hand. “They ate. They drank. Inge cleared the table, washed dishes. They sat in the living room and listened to Mozart, Hannah’s favorite. Especially the sonatas. Especially this one,” and with eyes closed, lifting her chin, Eva began to hum a simple minor-scale tune that jolted Brendan’s memory. Her voice, with the timbre of crystal, moved along the imaginary piano keys as her right hand lifted off her thigh and began stroking the melody’s surface, and a spasm of despair swirled through him. Inge coughed, and the sonata vanished. The silence was boundless.
“Anyway,” Eva continued, “at some point, Hannah Rosenbaum announced that it was time. Just like that. She could have meant, ‘It is time for the dentist. It is time to bake bread. It is time.’And so she walked into her bedroom, put on her white gown, and sat up in bed. She asked Inge to bring her a glass of white wine. And Inge did, filled to the brim with Riesling. Hannah took the glass in her hand and Inge unscrewed the top of the bottle, placing three, four pills at a time on Hannah’s tongue. Hannah swallowed them down with wine. And it was done. The bottle, empty. Many dozen pills, gone.
“And Hannah Rosenbaum lay down on her back, looking up at the light, at the paint on the ceiling. She stared into her own fate. And in her cold, winter eyes there was victory. ‘You will do what you need to do, if you need to do it,’ Hannah Rosenbaum said. And Inge, stupid girl, she must have gasped, because suddenly Hannah grabbed Inge’s wrist and made her promise to stay until morning. She made her promise on the grave of her father. ‘Do not leave. You must not leave. Promise me this now!’ And Inge swore, and Hannah told her that she would know from beyond if Inge lied, and as Inge knelt beside the bed, making even the sign of the cross to convince this old Jewish woman—stupid girl—the pills began to take effect, and Hannah Rosenbaum drifted away, still grasping Inge’s wrist.
“It was after eleven o’clock. Brendan, what do you suppose it could have been like for her, a girl of sixteen, to spend the evening in the home of a woman as she slowly dies?”
“Ask her,” he said, startled at how disembodied his words felt, like an echo without the antecedent voice. A tingling that began in his stomach had spread into his throat, coating the base of his neck and crawling along his scalp. He scratched the buggy tickle. Although Eva’s voice dominated the room, she seemed to recede in her chair, her spine contracting, shoulders narrowing.
“Inge, what was it like?” Eva asked. “Brendan insists I ask! What was it like for you to spend that night in the house of a woman dying?”
Inge turned, and Brendan could no longer see her face, only his grandmother’s as she and her sister stared at one another, and for a few moments a look of deep sadness moved over Eva’s face like an eclipse—and was gone. Inge shrugged. “There was nothing. I read. I slept. I went home.”
Eva sighed loudly, theatrically, closing her eyes and lifting her chin toward the heavens. She seemed to have regained both stature and command. “Brendan,” she said, placing one hand on the bookshelf and slowly pushing herself up. “I want to show you something. A photograph. Will you come with me? Inge, stay.”
Brendan felt as though his muscles had become porous and brittle, freeze-dried, cracking at the slightest strain. When he finally made it to his feet, he didn’t trust the relationship of his body to the floor. He moved cautiously, the nerve endings in the soles of his feet not quite synching with the pressure of his boots against the carpet.
Still, he managed to follow Eva back through the living room and into a dark hallway that led to the bedrooms. She stopped and turned to him. The darkness had turned the topography of her face into disembodied cheekbones and chin, her eyes and mouth hollow and black. He moved closer to her, and for a single and shameful moment hoped she would grab and kiss him.
“I needed to bring you away from her to tell you this,” she whispered. She placed her fingers on his shoulder. “You must understand that Inge is not like us. She does not feel like you or I feel. She is not a bad woman, no. But she can do the things you and I cannot. Then sleep like a child.” Her touch squeezed. “Do you think that is a bad thing?”
And he said, “Omi, look who you’re asking. I’m a mess. I fail everyone. Something inside makes me screw the people I need. It’s out of control. I wish I could be something else. That shit I take helps me forget myself. I’m here because I want to rewind my life. I’m looking for a totem to bring me back. Can you help me? I need help.”
Or at least that is what he wanted to tell her.
The empty hallway startled him awake, and in one jarring instant the passage of time soared through him and he tunneled back to the point when Eva had asked that question, most likely interpreting his silence as a kind of meditative impulse. And so she returned to her sister, leaving him alone (unknowingly) to consider her words, standing there one minute, two minutes, three minutes, hash pipe in fist, speaking, at last, to a dark corridor.
. . .
“It is late,” Inge said, placing her knitting down on the floor and her pipe onto a dish at the edge of the shelf. Fists latching onto the hand-bars of her walker, Inge grappled with her body until it remained upright. “Stay the night,” she said to Brendan, who sat stiffly and upright on the couch, flexing the muscles around his eye sockets. “You are dangerous on the road.”
“Look who’s talking,” he said, and she coughed what might have been a laugh. “Good night, Inge,” and she moved out of the TV room, moving with the poise of a young soul reconciled to an ancient body, her skewed frame weighing heavily on the walker as it somehow held her aloft, leading her to bed.
. . .
“I need cake,” Brendan said, cutting another piece and sliding it onto his palm and feeding his gaping mouth.
“Have more. Have all the cake you like. Eat and listen. Here it is: Inge spent the night examining Hannah Rosenbaum’s things. She wanted a glimpse into the meaning of this woman. Inge, I think, spent the evening as a soul outside the body. And then, six o’clock the next morning, the milk truck woke her.
“She sat up in the armchair. She forgot where she was, and then, her mission, all came back. She stood and crept down the hallway, down to Hannah’s room. She pushed the door with one finger, the hinge creaking as it opened slowly, and there lay Hannah on the bed, just as she had left her. A fly, she saw, buzzed and landed in her hair. Inge turned to leave—who wants to stay with a dead person?—when she suddenly heard the smallest sigh.” Eva swirled the Cognac. “Yes, God’s cruelest miracle. Hannah Rosenbaum lived.”
Eva set her glass down beside the dessert plate. She flattened her palms on her thighs and stared at the veins mapping the back of her hands. “It was one pillow. And one minute. And she could leave. And she could forget.”
It took Brendan a moment to grasp the meaning of “one pillow, one minute,” and when he did a cold current coursed through his gums. He shivered and grasped his knees, and his mind began to race through a collage of black and white—iron bed frames, open mouths, gowns, gray hair, and most vividly of all, a trembling hand lifting toward the ceiling.
“I need to go to bed,” he said.
“Ha! But that’s not even the story! Here is why I chose to tell you all this. Listen! Grandmother told Inge to lock the apartment after the police had taken the body away. No one could enter. Friends of Hannah Rosenbaum insisted on access, insisting they had spoken with her daughter in Sweden, or her brother in Britain. But no one was allowed. When a family friend brought a locksmith, the things inside had vanished. Heirlooms of china, silverware, fur coats—gone. First she is dead. And they pillaged the dead.
“After the war, distant relatives came from nowhere calling on us, wanting explanation, demanding these things, but grandmother had nothing to say.”
Eva stared hard at Brendan. “Wow,” he said.
“Wow, ha! Yes. Certainly wow. Look, things appeared. People received them as wedding gifts, anniversary gifts. Relatives of Hannah Rosenbaum were invited to your relatives’ houses, only to find themselves eating a holiday meal with spoons and knives engraved with the Rosenbaum ‘R.’ So much anger. But who was wronged? The Nazis chose Hannah, and Hannah chose Inge. And these things, all these beautiful things, like dandelions, they are everywhere.”
Eva stopped speaking. The silence filling the room felt like the inside of a large and empty glass bowl.
Eva reached for her Cognac glass and drained it. Brendan picked up his and tipped it over his mouth, but there was nothing in it.
“I can’t drive,” he said, the muscles around his eyelids collapsing beneath the strain. “I can barely move. Can I sleep here?”
“Of course you can. The spare bed is in Inge’s bedroom. It has sheets. I’ll make you breakfast. Brendan,” she said, and something in her voice made him freeze midway up from the couch, his knees bent. Her tone had lost its music, and the loss was jarring. Her eyes, for the first time that night, were an old woman’s eyes, glassy, rheumy. “Listen to a grandmother’s advice,” she continued, throat hushed, and he fell back onto the couch. “Do everything to get those things back. It doesn’t matter what. You must retrieve them. People come, people go, they live with you, they die without you, but the things, once they leave your hands, they are everywhere, and people will find your secrets in them. I have gathered all things under this roof and they will stay as long as I breathe. You—your eyes betray you. Do you have secrets, Brendan?”
Beside her, on the shelf, he noticed the spoon by the teacup, its handle jutting over the saucer’s golden trim, and he nodded, he nodded fiercely, his secrets too numerous to name.
. . .
Inge breathed loudly from her bed, a slight wheeze, air working through her sinuses. Without turning on any lights, he pulled off his boots and fell back onto the spare bed. He didn’t even bother getting under the sheets but simply lay on top of an unplugged electric blanket. He could hear Eva rummage through the bathroom, the medicine cabinet creaking open and shut, the toilet flushing, her bedroom door sighing closed. The objects in Inge’s room were faintly outlined by the blue glow of her digital clock reflecting off the metal support bar that ran the length of her bed. The air smelled medicinal, moist and minty, like a topical ointment.
The combination of intoxicants immobilized Brendan’s body, yet his mind churned manically, a deluge of images and sounds, no single thing related to another, a flipbook of erratic noise. Despite the room’s hospital warmth, he began to shiver.
“You are not sleeping?” he heard Inge say, after he failed to locate the wall plug for the blanket and instead cocooned himself inside of it.
“Sorry,” he said, jaw quivering. “I thought you were asleep.”
“I don’t sleep anymore. Sometimes I sleep. Mostly I just remember.”
“I’ll try to relax.”
“I have sleeping pills. Right here next to me. Sometimes they work. Take one.”
“From you?” he said, trying to chuckle as his torso shook.
But neither the frenzy in his head nor the trembling in his muscles showed any signs of abetting, so he got up and, still sealed in the blanket, lifted a prescription vial from her night table.
“Just one,” she said. “They are strong. Give me one too.”
From the glow of the clock, he saw her extended tongue as she said, “Ahhhhh.” He worked off the child-proof cap and dropped a tiny pill into her mouth, her tongue and lower lip grazing his thumb. He popped one on his own tongue as well, wincing at the aftertaste.
“Now we sleep,” she said.
Brendan returned to his bed and stared at the ceiling, watching as translucent blue orbs, retinal ghosts from the digital clock, tracked his eye movements, then faded. Soon, a warm, syrupy sensation moved from his chest and down his legs, warming the bones beneath his face. The memory of her mouth on his thumbnail felt like the trace of a cold and wet brush stroke, and as he raised his hand toward the ceiling, the ground beneath him opened.
“It wasn’t you was it,” he whispered. “It was her, Omi. Eva was the chosen one.”
Her breathing stilled, but she said nothing.
“That’s okay,” he said, “I’ll never tell.”
“It should never have been,” Inge said, her voice disarmingly calm. “She nearly lost her mind. So I took it from her.” She breathed. “Now it is my story. Für immer.”
And soon Brendan would sleep. The next morning he would leave, early and quickly, with little ceremony, arriving back at his parents’ house. He would tell the story, not sure where to even start, talking animatedly on the driveway beside their emerald lawn when his mother finds the stash under the passenger seat. He grapples for new words, new ways of trying to explain why he is the way he is, but this is Mom and Dad’s free ticket, and they can now throw him back onto the streets for his and their own good. He without a single earthly possession. And while he never really lands on his feet, he will never hit bottom either, always finding someone to help him make it through the week, even managing to finally reclaim Grandpa’s LP and everything else his ex has taken, his sister allowing him to hide these things in her basement, and he, realizing that Omi would love to hear this news, decides to visit her again, but he should call before he visits, and write before he calls. But he never writes.
Like an old couple, Inge and Eva will die months apart, and their possessions, glassware and coats and spoons, divided and dispersed and exiled even deeper into the world—the Diaspora diluted into extinction.
That last German word, which even he in this state understood as “forever,” echoed slightly in Inge’s room, and as the darkness multiplied, rolling over him in waves, he tried to smile, tried to speak, tried to tell Inge that she was a good sister, and that while some things need to be left alone, others beg to be taken, like memories.
He wanted to say this and so much more.