By Danny Jenkins
Copyright 2000 Dann Jenkins
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It had been a Chamber of Commerce day in Chattanooga. That meant that all the foundries had run full bore and no one was on strike. The result was a cloud of unnatural haze, which condensed in the cool of the evening to lay low on the valley floor. To Jake, as he descended the W-road off of Signal Mountain, the scene reminded him of a gigantic bowl of chicken gravy. It probably had to do with the fact that he hadn’t eaten yet.
He turned into the parking lot of the Waffle House and noticed that Earl’s car was already there. An absent-minded, unintentional smile came to him. Earl was another night shift RN and since this was the only place to get a decent breakfast at 10:00 PM, they often met here. God bless the Waffle House.
Earl was a bipedal ferret with the appropriate hypersensitive alertness and the remnants of what must have been a debilitating case of acne. Jake secretly thought that the zits hung around because of Earl’s seventh grade approach to women. All the trailer park princesses who worked there knew they would have to wade through a dose of innuendo to get Earl’s order, it was part of the game. They took a booth.
"You working One North tonight." Earl asked, fidgeting? Jake knew that Earl wouldn’t hear his answer anyway, so he just grunted. Earl was intent on verbal abuse of the first waitress to come within earshot. He would be totally absorbed by that encounter until it played out. Jake wondered idly if Earl practiced on the way over.
"Hey, Maggie," Earl shouted!
"What, Earl," a middle-aged waitress answered as she floated their way behind the counter, you never saw their feet. When she got to their table, she crossed her arms over her ample bosom and braced for the onslaught.
"Can I get a burger? But, hey… I don’t want it unless your buns are warm. Heh heh heh." Beavis or Butthead, take your pick.
"Okay, smartass. What about you, Jake? What can I get you, Sugar?" She took a couple of bundles of silverware from the rack as she spoke and laid them on the table.
"The usual, I guess," Jake said shaking his head.
"Oh, I can’t, Hon, we’re plumb out of steak. Damn whole high school football team eat in here tonight. How about ham with your eggs tonight, instead?" She stood with the pen resting on her fat lower lip. Earl was fidgeting again.
"Yeah, Jake, get the ham, it’s better anyways." Earl was flushing a bit. Something about the pen in her mouth was killing him.
"No ham. Just eggs over and hashbrowns scattered and smothered, that will be fine," Jake said curtly.
"Ah, come on, Jake, eat pig, it won’t kill you." Earl wasn’t even looking at Jake as he whined.
"Drop it, Earl!" No friendliness survived in his tone.
"Okay, shit! Forget it!" He was looking at Jake now.
Maggie turned and announced the order to the cook, who resembled a minor league serial killer. The only indication that he heard her was a twitch of the toothpick in the corner of his mouth.
"Man, you’re really touchy about that Jew shit. I guess I fucked up. Sorry, man." Earl leaned over the table, looking secretively left and right as he spoke.
"Don’t sweat it. I’m just kinda bitched out tonight…too much wine this morning, probably," Jake said. Good cheap wine was one of their bonding agents. They spent a lot of time on road trips scouring the Southeast in search of bargains.
"What did ya’ have?" Earl was attentive now.
"A Jadot Pouolly-Fuisse’ and Morgon," Jake said as he looked for the appropriate response and got it.
"Damn! I wish I’da saved some of my good stuff, I’m down to my Americans. We gotta go somewhere this weekend," Earl whined.
"Yeah, we’ll go." Jake sat back and rubbed his close-cropped head as he spoke.
"Hey, did ya’ hear the news? Ol’ Kevorkian did it again," Earl said as he played a tattoo with his index fingers.
"Yeah, he helped off a little ol’ granny up in Minnesota or someplace cold like that. Man, when are they gonna stop that nut?"
"I don’t know Earl, maybe it’s the ones hounding him that ought to be stopped," Jake said with a furrowed brow.
"Shit if that’s so! It’s murder pure and simple, and he’s a friggin’ doc to boot." Earl was in a full drum solo now.
"I don’t know," Jake said absently.
They finished their meal and parted with an agreement to meet Saturday at noon. Jake drove the remaining few miles to the hospital in a decidedly better emotional state. The prospects of a road trip had lifted his spirits nicely.
After some good-natured kidding at the nurses’ station, he began his assessment duties. It looked like a fairly routine night at Memorial. He had eleven patients of the usual ilk; three or four were surgical recoveries, several were "whales", which was his personal term for the obese, with all their attendant maladies, and the rest were "lumps"…old people. After assessment he was relieved to see that they were all ambulatory which meant a lot to a nurse…no wrestling.
At about two in the morning, he was in the room of a new admission, an elderly man in for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and several other minor complaints. Without actually knowing when it started, Jake became uneasy. Then he noticed that the old guy wasn’t asleep as he had thought, but was actually watching him intently. Everywhere Jake went in the room the eyes followed him, unblinking. And those eyes! Blue beyond blue, glacier-ice-reflecting-alpine-snow blue. Jake remembered now that he had already been surprised by this old man’s physical appearance earlier. He was extremely tall, or long actually, as he lay in the bed and Jake had done a mild double take when he saw the age on the chart; eighty-four. This guy would have passed for sixty. He had no wrinkles, a thick shock of sandy-gray hair and a chiseled jaw.
Jake pretended to be doing a notation on the chart as he read the man’s name; Kurt von Hecht. Something unfamiliar did a flip-flop somewhere inside.
"Your name is Jacob?" The voice was immeasurably vibrant and deep. It came from everywhere.
"Pardon me?" Jake continued to stare at the chart.
"I asked about your name. It is Jacob." he repeated?
"Jake, sir. Just like the nametag says…Jake Lowe." He tapped his badge for emphasis.
"No, I think Jacob," the old man said as if he was settling an argument with himself.
"Whatever," Jake said as he opened the door to leave.
"You are a Jew." He had just enough of an accent that it came out "chew."
Jake froze. He could feel the two places on the side of his face where the blue coals were touching him. He looked back at the bed, but his eyes went no higher than the man’s mouth, with its thin lips and teeth the color of late corn.
"And just how would you know that? And what business is it of yours, anyway?" He managed a fair amount of anger in his voice, he thought, but he felt like a kid yelling at the dark.
"I know because I see many Jewish faces. As to what it is to me…it is very important to me that you are a Jew, as it should be to you." The old man’s head moved slightly from side to side as he spoke.
"Well, my religion is my business and no concern of yours, sir, let’s just leave it at that, okay?" Jake was intent on leaving and headed for the door..
"Religion? We are not discussing religion, Jacob. You could be an agnostic Hindu shaman for all I care, it’s your race we speak of.." He had an uncanny ability to add weight to his words by subtle changes in tone. Jake had stopped and turned to face him without realizing the action, as if the voice were pulling him back.
"Look, mister, it’s my job to care for you while you’re here and I’ll do that, but I don’t care to discuss my personal life and you just need to be quiet about it and we’ll do just fine. Now, I’ve got other work to do. I’ll be back in a while for your medication and I don’t want to have to cover this again, okay?" Jake had already decided to make a note that the old man was delirious and that decision made it easier to deal with him. But, damn, the old son of a bitch had hit a nerve. Jake left the room.
Of course the old man was right. Jake Lowe…Jacob Lowenstein…big deal. Jake was the wayward Jewish son of wayward Jewish parents. It was his father who, in a fit of early onset mid-life crisis, had left the faith and changed the family name. The only contact Jake had ever had with real Jews was the occasional visiting snowbird relative and a couple of trips as a child to the old neighborhood. Add one disastrous fling with a beautiful JP in college and that was the whole enchilada. Jake was a Jew, but he wasn’t Jewish. The old geezer had nailed him.
The whole issue was a non-issue to Jake. Growing up in the ethnic polarity of the deep south, he had never needed to address the question. There are only two races in that part of the world…black or white. A person was one or the other and that’s as complicated as it gets. Jake’s theory about the whole thing had been worked out long ago. Being a member of a minority, but being in a situation where you yourself were not being actively oppressed, gave one a more or less objective slant. To Jake, it was all a matter of geographic proximity and timing. He lived well as a Jew in the south simply because the blacks were here to oppress first. They were the ones who lived through the oppression/freedom/resentment cycle in this region. In other parts of the world, they would live well and the Jew would be spurned. It was almost as if the southern culture only had a finite amount of racial intolerance, and the blacks, by sheer force of numbers, were using most of it.
By the time Jake had finished his follow-up rounds, he had put the whole scenario at the back of his mind. He had catalogued it in the senility file, which all medical personnel have in their heads. Old people will say or do anything. It’s as if inhibitions don’t have the same lifespan as their hosts, or like they were a phase that a person grew out of, like teething.
Then, about three-thirty, he was back in the old man’s room for medication. He busied himself with the preparations, thinking the patient was asleep, and glad of it.
"I was there, you know, Jacob," the voice said from everywhere. Jake flinched visibly.
"Damn! I mean… I thought you were asleep. You damn near made me inject myself," Jake said edgily.
"I rarely sleep and when I do it’s not pretty I’ve been told," the man said.
"Told? Told by who," Jake asked?
"Different people, you know, doctors, bus drivers, whores, wives…you know, whoever’s watching."
"What did you mean, you were there…there where?" Jake was busying himself with the preparation of the medicine as he talked.
"Dachua," the man said flatly. The needle fell to the floor and shattered with a tinkling sound. Jake felt his ears reddening.
"Okay, look Mr. Hecht, or von Hecht, or whatever the hell, you just stop right there. I’m going to finish giving you this injection and then I’m getting someone else assigned to you." Jake’s face was splotching badly and he was as uncomfortable as he could remember being. A Nazi…a fucking Nazi!
"Ah, so being a Jew is not unimportant to you, Jacob, that is good. That is as it should be and it fills me with hope. Do you know of hope, Jacob? Hope is a thing all people need." He said all this with his eyes closed. Jake was thankful.
As he inserted the needle into the I-V port, Jake noticed that his hand was trembling slightly and it took all of his focus to get the job done. He was perplexed by his state. The holocaust had never caused him any unrest or anxiety…maybe a twinge of guilt that it hadn’t, that was all. His only personal experience with it had been the "party-killers", which was his pet name for his two great-aunts who had been at Auschwitz. They had been at both the family reunions that Jake had attended as a child. When they showed up, the party died. Everyone immediately started speaking in hushed tones and the children were lined up like cattle at a slaughterhouse and presented to them. What Jake remembered most about them was how they seemed to be able to have whole conversations without uttering a word between them. Facial expressions, shrugs, raised eyebrows, head movements…it all made Jake uneasy. And when their puffy old mouths smiled, their eyes didn’t change. They had what the Vietnam journalists called the thousand-yard stare. Jake had always wondered why the journalists of WWII hadn’t thought of a cool name for what was wrong with Jewish eyes.
"Jacob, I asked you about hope. Do you know about hope," the old man persisted?
"I hope you’ll keep your damn mouth shut until I get out of here, that’s what I hope," Jake said with all the anger he could put in his voice.
"Jacob, I want to speak of important things with you. If you will give me a chance, I will
make you a significant Jew. What I want is to ask a service of you, and by performing this task, you will not only help my situation, but also do a great thing for your people. It’s what I think today’s people would call a win-win." The voice had a calm instructive quality to it now like an old music teacher.
"What kind of service?" Jake couldn’t help asking.
"I want you to make me die," the man said, his blue eyes penetrating to the back of Jake’s skull.
"Shit!" Jake turned on the balls of his feet and stalked out of the room. He went straight to the nurses’ station and asked someone who the charge nurse was for his shift. When he heard the answer, his long-held theory that cosmic forces were aligned against him gained further credence. It was Millie Henson, a frustrated mother of three with a philandering husband who she was determined to stay even with. It was like a game, if he got laid, and she always knew when he did, then she had to reciprocate. Jake had made the mistake of rejecting her when she was two behind…she hated him with a blue hate. Jake didn’t even bother looking her up.
He went, instead, to the cafeteria. He needed separation and caffeine. The usual crowd of misfits was there, droning on about their generic lives. Ordinarily, he would have eased into one group or another and joined the hum, unobtrusively, but not tonight. The old Nazi had struck an arc between two previously unrelated points in Jake’s psyche and now it glowed white. Suppressed emotions, half-thoughts and vague doubts were all being seared by the heat of it. Anyone with a distinct racial heritage always stands on a frail bridge just above the unrelenting torrent of history. Some choose to stand erect, only occasionally glancing at the maelstrom, some extend a hand into the flow to feel its power and others jump. Jake felt like he was being pushed.
He grabbed a steaming cup from a tray as one of the staff carried it by and filled it with what the hospital sold as coffee. The consensus was that they bought it in blocks from a paving contractor and melted it along with medical waste in the incinerator, but it would give you a rush. Jake took a chair in the farthest corner, well away from anyone. As he slurped, he tried to analyze what was happening, but it was all jumbled in the spin cycle of his emotions. The only clear thought that he had in the whole time he sat there was, "Why me?"
As he got up to finish his shift, he was aware of a strange feeling. No, not a feeling, a pull, like the first jerk of a metal shaving as a magnet draws near; no direction, just a twitch, but in response to something somewhere else, not internal. Something like what makes people pull over, interrupting their routine lives, and walk to a wreck…just to see.
Jake found himself, eventually, back in the old man’s room. The upper part of the bed was elevated now, and the man sat calmly. There was something in the way he held his head that spoke of will, like he was determined to carry it a little bit higher than his disease wanted him to. All his accoutrements were well bought and well maintained, if a bit old. His leather shaving kit was evidently expensive, but frayed at the seams. A yellowing pearl handled straight razor lay on the nightstand. The fact that this old guy could still wield this instrument at his age and with his affliction left Jake a bit awestruck.
"You think I’m daft don’t you, Jacob," the man said. "Just a crazy old man and all you have to do is ignore me or humor me and everything will pass. This is true?"
"Look, one more time. It’s my job to take care of you and I’m good at my job. I don’t think you and I should talk, other than business, okay?" Jake was actually at ease now, the storm had passed, he thought. Just be professional, hide behind the scrubs, don’t make human contact and this was an easy job.
"I was good at my job once, Jacob, and that’s the business I wish to discuss with you. I know you are at least mildly interested, or you would have never returned tonight, eh?" The man took several long gulps of water from a glass from the bed tray. Jake noticed that his gnarled fingers wouldn’t close around it.
"I’m back here because it’s my job, that’s all," Jake said as he gathered up the collateral refuse from his night’s work.
"A job well done is a thing a man should take pride in, Jacob, is it not? A task is set before you, instructions are given and you carry them out to the letter. This is the lot of a man seeking to do a good job. I wish to tell you, Nurse Jacob the Jew, about what a good job I did once, that is all. Will you allow it, or no?"
Jake could feel the pull again but he fought against it. "Listen, Mr. von Hecht, I know you probably have a very interesting story to tell and I know that with your condition you have a great deal of pain, but…"
"What, this?" The old man held up a twisted hand as he spoke. "Jacob, this is a mere discomfort, an inconvenience. But, you are right, I do have pain, real pain, pain of the spirit. But, he and I have an understanding, this pain. We demand certain things of each other to co-exist. What you fail to grasp is that instead of not being able to live with this pain, I could never have lived without it."
Jake paused before speaking. At times during his life, he had experienced a strange sensation. If he was up high and close to the edge, his knees filled with a hot liquid and he had an urge to jump. He felt that way now.
"Anyway," Jake said, "I’m not the guy for you. You were right, I am Jewish, but I’ve never been very involved in it. What I mean is, I know what went on back then, and all, but it’s not something I think about."
"Jacob, you are a Jew. The blood that flows in you is Jewish. When you think, the thoughts are Jewish. You need not meet any criteria to attain Jewishness, you were born a Jew, and no matter what course your life takes, you will die a Jew. And another thing, if you weren’t there, you weren’t, and you have no idea what went on ‘back then’ as you call it." Once again the voice was pulling at him, without even realizing it, Jake was standing beside the bed. He felt a little foolish.
"What I mean is that I’ve read books and seen pictures and all, you know," Jake said.
"Books…what do books do? Read a book about riding a roller coaster, the go ride one. Read about war, then go fight one. Read about love, then fall in love. Books only involve your brain. Experience, on the other hand, requires action and attendance and these factors multiply the impact immeasurably."
"Well, what? I’m supposed to listen to your horror stories about the death camps and it’s going to make me mad enough to kill you? I can’t see it happening, mister. First, I’m not that emotional about all that shit…and second," Jake struggled, "well, hell, I don’t know what’s second, but I ain’t the guy for you."
"You certainly have a flushed face for someone who is not emotional, Jacob," the man said soothingly. "You see, you are emotional about it, as all Jews are. The mathematics of the event create an intense emotion in both our people. It cannot be helped or denied."
Jake’s mind was spot-thinking now, short unrelated bursts of energy caroming around in his head. This was deteriorating into a full-blown situation, he needed resolution…now. He threw a handful of trash into the wastebasket, walked into the bathroom, and closed the door. He stood, holding the sides of the sink, and staring hard at himself in the mirror. A small worm-like vein pulsed in his temple.
"Okay, little boy," he said to mirror-Jake, "it’s time to turn on the light and look under the bed."
When he re-entered the room, the old man was lying back comfortably, patiently, with his arms folded across his chest, eyes closed. Jake felt the last urge to walk out of the room come and go. He felt like a man waiting for a rectal exam, painful but for the greater good. He crossed the small distance and sat in the chair beside the bed. He sat, ill at ease, with his elbows on his knees, but he sat.
"Alright, mister, here I am, let’s have it. What were you, Gestapo…SS…go ahead give it to me with both barrels, I can take it." Jake was speaking, more or less, to the carpet.
"Gestapo? SS? No, I’m afraid your people must be satisfied with punishment in the next world for these men. They are incapable of guilt just as they were incapable of compassion, or any other human emotion. These were men of faith. Beware men of faith, Jacob. Blind faith blinds. No, I was merely a technician, a man who knew machines and systems and how to keep them running. I had little contact with the inmates, save for the work crews, which I occasionally supervised. So you see, Jacob, my burden is that the machines that carried out the work of the men of faith were efficient and almost never inoperable. I did a good job. If a problem arose, I was relentless in solving it. I saw to it that nothing slowed the process. This is my curse."
"But you knew what the machines were used for, right?" Jake was looking at him now.
"Everyone knew, Jacob. If ever you hear a German say he didn’t know, tell this man he is a liar. All knew."
"But how could you be a part of something so monumentally wrong? How could you live with yourself?" Jake’s voice almost broke. He didn’t like the feeling growing in him.
"There is a word that men use, Jacob…loyalty. This word has a noble ring, yes? But it is not, by itself, a noble word, Jacob. Loyalty without reason is as evil a thing as a man can be a part of. The problem is, basically, that most men who profess loyalty do not even understand the concept. There are other loyalties, larger and smaller, which are compromised when a man is misguided. This is what happened to my people." The old man’s head sagged perceptibly as he spoke.
They sat silent for a while. It wasn’t that Jake couldn’t think of something to say. There were thousands of questions, curses and statements that he wanted to get out, but he just couldn’t. This was a whirlpool. He’d managed to skirt it all his life, but now he was in the spiral. He felt safest just trying to ride it out. Then the old man began to roll up his sleeve. He had a tattoo. "Do you know this word, Jacob?" It was the Hebrew word for friend. Funny thing was, though, it was upside down from Jake’s vantage point.
"Yeah, I know it. Why’s it upside down," Jake asked?
"Because it is for me to read, not you," the man said. He continued, "I was in a small room doing a small job." He was lying back now and his eyes scanned back and forth across the ceiling, like he was watching a large screen. "I was, as usual, totally engrossed by my task, so I don’t know how long she had just stood there, watching, waiting for me to notice her."
"Who," Jake asked, spiralling?
"The little girl, a little Jewish girl. She just stood there, silent as a wall. Finally, as I reached for something, I saw her. She was totally naked. Her thighs and shoulders were flushed from the cold, but she wasn’t shivering. Motionless, like a statue. How she had gotten away, I’ll never know, but she had, and it was to me she came. We looked at each other…breathless, and a small tear fell from the lower lash of her left eye. She said this word, once…with only breath…no voice. I had no idea what it meant. Then, at the door, a guard, a big man in uniform. He just stood there like an irate nanny. He took her with a mere jerk of his head in the direction of eternity. She looked past him at me as she went through the door. Those brown eyes pulled my soul loose from me and it went down the hall with her." His voice was quivering as he finished.
Jake felt an urge to shake his head sideways to clear it. There was a strange coldness in his lower abdomen, but his eyes were scalding. Too much, he thought.
"So you see, Jacob, I have lived an entire life without a soul. I felt that it was my duty to this child to go through the act of living just in case she left something with me in exchange for the soul she took, which I believe she did. But now it is over. I have reached the point where my mind is becoming dull. I fear it will fail me and I will lose my direction. The child has led me through all these years and now she calls to me. It is time for me to go to whatever awaits…purgatory, salvation, or oblivion. And a Jew must send me. This I know." His eyes were closed now, and he lay with his mouth gaping, looking old.
Jake could see him peripherally, but he couldn’t look directly at him. He felt like he wanted to lay in the floor,or fly, or something. One-word thoughts were whizzing through his brain like a guardrail at freeway speed. He got up and left the room. He did it again and again, without moving. He was part of the room now.
"Now I believe she speaks to two people, hmm?" The old man sounded on the verge of sleep, but the voice was still more felt than heard. It was like it didn’t end when he stopped talking, but held the last note until something else happened. He lay his hands on his chest, one on top of the other because the fingers were too gnarled to lace. Jake cleared his throat.
"Why don’t you just wait until you get home to handle this yourself," he asked?
"Jacob, believe me, this is the way it must be…for me…for you, and for both our people. It is the only way." He took in a deep breath and when he exhaled, Jake knew he was free to go. So he did. He went straight to his locker, grabbed his things, clocked out and hit the interstate at eighty-five miles per hour. He was south of Atlanta before he pulled over, bouncing off the curb as he parked in the rest area.. He shut off the engine, lay the seat back and stared at the headliner for a long, long time.
A week later, the Waffle House was hopping. It was Saturday night and most of the booths were full. Two or three family type groups, a cheap date or two, and a group of rude rich boys from the mountain with their khakis and deep ball caps. The stools at the counter were manned by the good ol’ boys who came here because they weren’t allowed to go honky-tonking. Their wives were visiting, or shopping, or tending the kids, blissfully unaware of the predatory nature of the sweet little thing pouring her man a cup of coffee. The south never developed neighborhood bars…she’s why.
Jake and Earl sat at a booth by the window. Jake was currently involved in following the progress of a drop of water as it slid down the greasy window. He’d been at it for a while. Someone had played Alison Krauss on the jukebox. Her voice made Jake feel like the building was crying. It fit his mood.
"Hey, man, did you see? We had a celebrity drop dead in One North the other night," Earl said excitedly.
"Huh?" Jake hadn’t heard what Earl had said.
"Yeah, right here," Earl said as he tapped the newspaper on the table. "It says we had a famous Nazi kick off the other day. He was in One North. Did you have him? Man, I’da liked to talked to him, I love that war shit, ‘specially that one, you know WWII, it was the last good’un."
Earl held up his cup and wiggled it until one of the waitresses nodded.
"Does it say anything about the death camps?" Jake really wanted to know.
"Death camps? What the hell you talking about? There was more to the war than that, you know. Nuh-uh, not this guy, wrong Nazi. This was a soldier." Earl puffed out his non-existent chest and lowered his voice on the last word.
"What do you mean?" Jake snatched the paper from the table and read.
"GERMANY’S MOST DECORATED SOLDIER DIES LOCALLY," the headline said. Jake read only snatches after that, "Kurt von Hecht….Two Iron Crosses…North Africa Campaign…severely wounded…bravery and valor under fire.
Jake felt a quiver at the corners of his mouth. He grinned. He ordered country ham.