Meyer Holbein pushed his broom down the partially lit corridor as he had done for the last dozen years. It was a simple task, something he was uniquely qualified for. He was a tall, perfectly stooped man in his early seventies whom the building maintenance department preferred to believe was ten years younger. Meyer was gifted with large hands, powerful shoulders and a dogged diligence that was best applied to repetition.
Meyer was not a bright man, not by conventional standards. He was smart in the sense that he understood the difference between right and wrong and practiced the ancient art of integrity with an uncommon zeal. He worked his own responsibilities and paid little attention to the complaints and cunning of those around him.
As he made his way down the hall, voices danced and flowed in his head. Echoes and images from his childhood in Odessa, Russia, and how he and his brother had fled the pogroms with their uncle who was lost in a ferocious blizzard, seeped up from his once sealed subconscious. How both young boys fought hunger and privation to get to the western borders of Germany on the eve of the Second World War was a miracle worth recounting.
He could easily make out the dimples in his brother’s pale, ten-year-old cheeks. The small gold locket his grandfather had given David on his eighth birthday after he had composed the most wonderful poem about his belief in God still evoked a disturbing ring in Meyer’s youthful soul. At first, he had been terribly jealous of his younger brother. Meyer was the oldest. He was a fine athlete with a fine throwing arm that could fire a ball across a field as easily as make a smooth stone skip five or six times across the surface of the local pond.
Meyer believed he deserved an equally miraculous gift even though he had done nothing so lyrically noteworthy to earn it. Sometimes he held onto these ancient images as if they would get him through the day and most often, they were all he had to cling to during those long nights of reflection.
The red lights outside Studios 2 and 3 were dark. Only the bulb above the door of Studio 4 flickered with any regularity, indicating that the studio was active and should not be entered by anyone without authority. Dr. Bryce Allen was on the phones with late night callers—mostly insomniacs, desperately depressed people, the occasional sociopath, and your average raging schizophrenic who could not manage a day in society without the need to give vent to the violence of their feelings at night. The clock at the end of the long corridor on the eighteenth floor in the Bedford Building on Lawrance Avenue in the fancy Park Ridge section of Bethpage, Ohio, indicated it was fifteen minutes past one in the morning. Meyer Holbein’s workday was only beginning.
Cleaning—professional cleaning—requires a certain kind of personality. It’s the attention to mindless detail that counts, a dedication to perfection and a sense that the task in hand is really of value. It’s only when you realize you’re on the lowest rung of the economic food chain, so close to the abyss, that you have a heady respect for your own frailties. Meyer, after years of working in large commercial buildings, if only to give him space for his mind and body to heal from the terrors of his childhood, had finally mastered his job and gained a toehold on sanity. It had taken him a lifetime to reclaim his life and it was the simple repetition that gave him the safety to explore other areas of his mind.
The fact that he could tend to his job with authority and dignity gave him the emotional freedom to wonder what life would be like in the afterlife. Jewish by birth and tradition, he had an unorthodox and abiding belief in such a hereafter. And he never believed what a man did in his corporeal identity mattered much after the imperfect fleshy shell succumbed to age, disease, and indignity.
Dr. Bryce Allen poked his head out of Studio 4. That meant he was searching up and down the hall to see if he was alone so he could take a few drags on his cigarette. His only vice, it made the four hour stint, until Reverend Johnathan Hasting’s morning Evangelical Hour woke up those who were fortunate enough to capture a whole night’s sleep, palatable. He nodded to Meyer who returned the gesture.
Meyer pushed his broom down the long corridor focusing his attention on position. Position in life, in morality and judgment, was everything. Whether it was paying attention to one side of a broom as it moved parallel against the wall as it swept up debris to maximize each pass and minimize the amount of work while maintaining the highest productivity, position was a vital subset of paying attention to details.
By the time he came back down the hall, Bryce Allen was halfway through his cigarette and constantly checked his watch against the time it took to compete a long string of commercials that were playing out to a desperately lonely Ohio audience. Meyer looked up at Bryce. Their eyes met in understanding, of respect for the other’s efforts and dedication.
“Maybe sometime we should switch jobs,” Allen offered as Meyer passed. It wasn’t meant as patronizing or said with any contempt. It was a throwaway line that often had more meaning than either party appreciated. “My sense is that you’d probably be pretty good at it.”
Meyer wanted to stop and talk. However, he too valued the importance of doing what he was paid to do and not have it get back to his supervisor that he had engaged someone like Dr. Allen in any way other than polite pleasantries. But he couldn’t help himself. “We all have our calling.”
Allen snatched a quick glance at his watch, took another quick drag, crushed the flame of his cigarette against his heel, looked apologetically at the back of Meyer Hoblin’s head as he passed by because of the mess he was making, yanked open the studio door and plunged back into the madness of a world inhabited by the most desperate. Meyer spent the next hour of his Wednesday thinking how hard it must be to do what Bryce Allen did. How many years of training and counseling and helping those less fortunate as well as those whose lives could only be measured in layers of lofty white insulated clouds.
At exactly three-fifty in the morning, Allen ducked out of the studio to take his second and last break and lit up so quickly one might have thought he needed the smoke from his cigarette more than oxygen itself. His eyes rolled in one long lingering arc as he fell against the door to Studio 4, lost in a stolen moment of contentment.
“How’s your calling going?” Meyer asked without lifting his head as he passed by the studio, this time with mop in hand.
Allen’s head fell forward, his eyes slipped open, questioning where he was and the essence of his obligations to society. He couldn’t imagine answering another question, dealing with another crisis or trying to solve the ills of a neurotic, paranoid society. Another suspicious wife, another malcontent husband, another bitter adolescent trying to reconstruct his or her life, to point the blame, to give some surety of innocence, to get some approval for their dysfunctional behavior, to stem the tide of corrosion caused by our collective malaise.
Instead, he was greeted by the janitor he had been watching for the last year. It was the way the quiet man with the faded Eastern-European accent wielded his broom and mop that so captivated the guy with two doctorates and a mind so precise and incisive he could divine guilt or innocence by listening to the second verb of the caller’s confession. The janitor, as he had already mentioned to several of his colleagues, presented an interesting, though hardly noteworthy, case. Most concluded Allen had fixated on the man simply to relieve the long nights listening to the suffering of the faceless. Bryce Allen knew better. He was curious about the detached facade that was said to be Meyer Holbein.
“Better than before.”
“Good,” was all Meyer could muster and started to move on.
“Do you want a cigarette?”
“No. I don’t smoke. Thanks anyway.”
Allen wanted to say something else that would restrain the man from his appointed rounds. He tried to think of something sociable, something that would elicit a more effusive response. He wanted the man to reveal himself in just one word. “Would you like to listen in on my talk show?” was something he didn’t expect to hear spill from his lips.
Meyer had listened to it many times on the tiny radio he carried with him. The one he had found in the trash in front of his apartment building. It was amazing what some people discarded, Meyer learned, once he took the time to look. His entire kitchen, except for the stove and refrigerator, was crafted from neighborhood castoffs. The world was wasteful and untamed while he was thrifty and cautious. He was not necessarily proud of this part of his personality; then again, if it had not been for his natural caution, he might not have accumulated such a sizable nest egg.
He delighted in calling up his bank at the end of each week, much to the dismay of those operators who recognized his voice, to find out his balances. His brokerage account statements arrived promptly at the beginning of each month and were eagerly ripped open with both pride and anticipation.
Meyer Holbein was a man content with what he had made of himself within the confines of his life and was unrepentantly distrustful of others. Especially those who were up at two and three and four in the morning and who had nothing better to do then listen to the rhapsody of their own complaints.
There was Dennis, who claimed he couldn’t control himself around women, who apparently were unable to keep their hands off his “amazingly magnetic” body. Meyer rolled those words—amazing magnetic— over in his mouth. How could anyone actually use that phrase? How could anybody listen to such self-centered, disingenuous crap? Obviously, the ego and dementia of people so insecure and uncomfortable with their own psyches they had to fabricate another was bad enough. Launching it into the radio ethers merely to hear their own words as justification of their miserable existence was inexcusable.
Meyer cleaned his broom, worked his mop through the steaming soapy water, and started back down the corridor wondering if Millie was on again. She was supposed to be the middle-aged divorced mother of two who coincidentally happened to be an exotic dancer two nights a week and just had to confess her concerns about what she might do or say if anyone found out. Meyer wanted to introduce her to the self-involved drone with the amazingly magnetic body. They deserved each other, even if Millie did sound more genuinely concerned about her life, though Meyer doubted it had anything to do with her imaginary life as a stripper and lap dancer.
He could picture Dr. Allen behind the microphone, steaming coffee cup in one hand and note pad in the other, actually listening with rapt attention to the litany of self-indulgent claptrap in the hope of receiving one or two calls a night from a really needy, fearful soul who would inhale his advice and be transformed into a paradigm of stability and decency. Dr. Bryce Allen would dispense sound, thoughtful and unusually compassionate advice to the most irrational, or those only slightly perturbed. Meyer could also imagine himself doing exactly the same thing, if not so rigorous in his dictums.
He would have loved to have taken Dr. Allen up on his offer, but he knew that such a display might indirectly find its way back to management and end what he considered a job so suited to his hermetic personality he would have been devastated to leave. As it was, he had falsified his age simply to have lasted this long. No, everything in its own time and in its own place and no one should be so emboldened or needful to cross over that line merely to occupy another man’s world.
Meyer stopped at the far end of the corridor on the eighteenth floor and turned. The other end looked as far away as possible. He knew that at one time in his life he could have hurled a fair-sized stone down the length of the barren tunnel and, so powerful was his arm and shoulder, it would have traveled the length without losing a foot of level height. Meyer tried not to dwell on thoughts like this one that drained the fluids from his senses and the promise of another day from his heart.
Meyer pulled the battered black radio from his coveralls and switched on W1033, NightTalk. “Dr. Allen?” the young man intoned, trying to control his distress, “You don’t understand, I was fired from my job a month ago and my wife doesn’t know. I leave every day and spend the mornings in the library and afternoons in the movies.”
There was that trademark reflective pause followed by the somber, dulcet tones of Dr. Bryce Allen. “If you love her and she loves you there must be open communication. Think how you would feel if she didn’t come to you with the truth of her life? Think of how she will feel if she finds out what has happened from a friend or neighbor?”
“I know. I know,” the man yapped obediently.
“Tell her you’re a male stripper and closet cliff diver,” Meyer chortled at the radio, “then she wouldn’t care that you’re an incompetent dolt.”
Bryce Allen leaned forward that added inch, demonstrating to himself that he hadn’t lost interest in his calling, in saving his brood, in calming and tending to the community of the suffering. “This is serious, Martin.”
“Yes. I know. I just feel so bad about myself. I’ve lost my confidence.”
“You should tell her tomorrow,” Dr. Allen suggested. “Sit her down and tell your wife the truth.”
“Tomorrow?” Martin asked fearfully.
“She will expect you to get up, get dressed and go to work.”
“She leaves for her job before I leave for mine.”
“The plot thickens,” Meyer noted, bending to his task. He didn’t like Martin. He didn’t like the Martins of the world.
“And you can’t face her because she’s more successful? Does she make more money than you do?”
“And do you think she wouldn’t respect or love you if she finds out?”
The mop head moves in wide, sweeping strokes in such a precise pattern the floor was covered with an artful abstract grace. “She already doesn’t.”
“Yes,” the man answered mournfully.
“And the minute she finds out she’s going to take your bratty kids and run off with the man she is already having an affair with. Fool.”
“Would you rather postpone telling her?” Allen asked.
“I think I have to,” the man answered. “Oh, God, I don’t know what to do.”
“All right, settle down now Martin. We can work our way through this. Do you believe we can work this out?”
The night air was filled with silence. Thousands of weary listeners were anxiously waiting, along with Meyer, for Martin’s response. Some think Martin will wimp out. However, most know he hasn’t spilled out his guts yet. The real sordid truth, the one that drives people to stay up so late they’re too tired to turn out the lights in their bedroom when they finally close their eyes, is lurking in the background. The only question is whether Bryce Allen will go for it or let the guy off with a somewhat patronizing, “I’m sure you will work it out,” epithet and move on to the next needful caller.
“I don’t know anymore.”
“Have you told me everything?”
There is a sound coming over Meyer’s radio that he and every listener recognizes as a hand fingering a phone receiver, not knowing whether to bring it back up to his mouth or drop it down on the black plastic cradle. “I got fired for, oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening to me, sexually harassing one of the girl’s in the secretarial pool.”
“So, our boy was found swimming upstream in the secretarial pool,” Meyer acknowledged with some pleasure. He had already guessed that the man had gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He just didn’t know which one. Meyer saw the man with his hand on a secretary’s shoulder, letting it drop so close down her back it accidentally touched the crest of her buttocks. Meyer felt the young girl’s body go cold with revulsion and fear. The same kind of terror his bright baby brother must have felt knowing that his life was in danger, but not understanding how close to death he really was.
Meyer listened to Martin drone on about his fears knowing that the man had never experienced anything more threatening than soulless guilt and the vague concern that his moral weakness might be exposed. Meyer wondered how he might have reacted if he was ten and being tracked through the snows of Western Austria by a squad of SS guards with guns, barely restraining a pack of ferocious German Shepherds. Meyer wondered what his brother might have looked like, turned out to be, if he had grown up by his side. Meyer wanted to believe he would not have made so many mistakes in judgment if he had had his brother to advise him, to counsel him, to hold him back from behaving like an arrogant, unkind, deceitful and distrusting fool.
Meyer diagnosed Martin as an unworthy enabling, co-dependent. By the time Meyer finished mopping the hall on the 17th and 16th and 15th floors, Martin was lost in a torrent of commentary from other callers about his weakness, how he was trying to gain sympathy from the audience and how Martin was a jackass. One unsympathetic caller intoned that Martin was a ‘natural born victim,’ and not worthy of meaningful compassion or commentary.
Meyer agreed, with a reservation of sympathy and doubts about the concept of co-dependency. What if Martin really was a victim in his own eyes? Wasn’t that in itself a form of mental or emotional deficiency? These things were always so complicated. Life rarely presented clearly defined issues with which one could come down solidly on one side of the other with robust certainty.
“How’s it going?”
Meyer looked up at Willie Justice, the night guard who manned the first floor front desk at the Bedford Building. Justice was a large, imposing figure of a man with a flaccid face and perpetual stubble who at some time in the past has been a Los Angeles policeman, worked for what he referred to as ‘the largest detective agency in the world’ and, due to some unresolved issues with alcohol, was now content to sit out the rest of his life guarding the hollow halls of this building until the break of dawn. “It’s going,” was what Meyer usually answered.
“Goddamn windy out there,” Justice said, poking the beam of his flashlight up and down the lit corridor.
Meyer never knew what to make of this irrational idiosyncrasy. At first, it reminded him of the guards with their growling dogs who chased him and his brother in the night behind barns, into chicken coops, up trees. Up trees? Meyer hadn’t recalled that one in some time and couldn’t honestly admit if it was even true. He knew they had been running for weeks. Maybe months. The memories crisscrossed the deepest recesses of his recall, more dim and fragile and painful than ever. “Did you listen to Martin?”
“You think so?”
“Sicko’s got his head so far up some broad’s skirt he ought to have it chopped off.”
“That would be your advice?”
“That would be the response if I were his wife.”
He watched Willie for a few seconds than continued on. Once you got to a certain age the only things that made you uncomfortable were how often you had to go to the bathroom at night and realizing that others were as suspect of your dementia as you were.
Meyer slept fitfully that night. He dreamt that he was on a edge of a cliff and below him, as far as the eye could see, were sheep. Except they were not moving about the valley floor chewing grass. A fluffy gray mute mass keeping their heads lower than one might have expected, as if they were fearful of comets exploding from the heavens.
The next night he caught Bryce Allen in the corridor and, with unexpected boldness, asked him if he could sit in on his show for a few minutes. Much to his delight the good doctor was more than willing to grant the favor and ushered Meyer into the studio with a flurry of apologies for the ashes he left each night in the hall floor outside the studio door.
“It’s my job to clean up other people’s mess,” Meyer said, cautiously resting his frame in a thickly cushioned chair.
“Funny, it’s my job to do the same,” Dr. Allen said, flipping the headset over his ears.
Meyer tried to make himself comfortable. He had cleaned out this studio, as he had all the studios during their downtime for the least three years. Up until this evening, they were inanimate hulks laced with electronic gear that he did not understand, nor was he curious to grasp the mechanism of how words could travel out over the air and wind up in a stranger’s home hundreds or thousands of miles away. Science had always mystified him; not like his brother, who was enraptured by it.
“Now, Melissa, once more, and try not to rush because I know this is important to you and the rest of our listeners. Tell us exactly what your boyfriend said.”
“He said he would kill me if I left him.”
“He used those exact words?”
The young voice broke tremulously, as if the woman was in immediate danger. “Twice.”
Bryce Allen looked up at Meyer and shook his head in despair. “He threatened your life?”
“I’m so scared, Dr. Allen.”
Meyer suddenly wished he were elsewhere. Anywhere except here, away from the heated immediacy of such intimacy. He didn’t know why, but he had the sensation that the chair, the very air in the room, was warmer. For a second he thought Allen expected him to respond with an answer for the young woman.
How could a man threaten a woman? What right did anybody, man or woman, have to harm another human being? And yet he knew that what he was listening to was playing out in hundreds of communities all over the country and more than likely all over the world. Men, threatening, beating, abusing, and crushing the spirit and soul out of women. Why? Because they felt they had the right? That they were entitled to dominating power simply because of their size or seemingly natural proclivities? Meyer wanted Allen to say something that would end the conversation and his own growing discomfort.
“Don’t you think you should call the police?”
“I know I should, but, look, I love him. He’s a good man, better than most, and sometimes he, well, gets out of hand.”
“Then you’re not really in any danger.”
“Well, I’m not sure.”
“Has this happened before?”
“Yeah,” Melissa said, “but not like this. Never like this.”
“Melissa, I would advise you as I would any woman or man who had been threatened. If it’s not this time than it will be next time. Your safety is at stake and if I’m not mistaken he has already physically abused you.”
“He didn’t mean to.”
“Would you say that if he abused your mother or sister? Would you be so accepting and forgiving if you saw your neighbor threaten or beat his wife?”
“I never thought of it that way.”
Meyer felt a swell of relief fill the room. What a clever thing to ask. Bryce Allen’s reputation was well deserved. He sat up in the chair as Allen listened and advised and supported and consoled. Later that morning, as he finished up on the lower floors, nodding to Willie Justice as the guard made his rounds, he decided that he hadn’t been nearly as appreciative as he should have been. He did say thank you to Bryce Allen after ten or fifteen minutes and another half dozen callers. Allen seemed interested in him staying, as if he wanted Meyer’s opinion, or simple companionship to see him through the night.
At exactly six in the morning, Meyer left the building, took the number 32BJ bus to Seymour Junior High School and worked with the janitorial staff until noon, then walked home and was asleep by one in the afternoon. His languor was continuously interrupted by visions of demons that he thought he had conquered or outrun long ago. There was a gray whiteness overshadowed by an unidentifiable drumming sound. Small, dark, unidentifiable objects, none larger than the fist of a young boy, flew across the sky and ignited into bursts of red and orange by the friction of their haste before they reached their imaginary target.
He knew he had awoken several times during the afternoon, the thick of his night, and finally remained wide awake rethinking the story of the young man who could not come to terms with his father before his death. How could Bryce Allen keep all the facts straight he asked himself as he finished his cereal and listened to the evening weather forecast.
The bus ride back to work was strangely calming. He read the newspapers, no longer interested in sports; he consumed most of the forty-five minute trip plodding through the editorials. Politics, the venting of public opinion, the economy that no economist could understand much less predict, the latest crisis in health care and the most controversial scientific breakthrough filled the balance of the trip, accompanied now by the drums from his dream.
He entered the Bedford Building, went directly to Studio 4 and left a short handwritten note of appreciation next to the audio console and lifeless headphones. Relieved, he proceeded to his locker and slipped on his coveralls. When he could no longer shut out the drumming sound, which by now he felt could be heard down the hall, he collapsed onto the frail bench that filled the changing room. The door to the dressing room opened and what appeared to be the apparition of Bryce Allen’s head slipped into view. It was only when words came forth that Meyer realized he was not living out his nightmare.
“I called, but you didn’t turn. Are you all right?”
Meyer wasn’t certain. And he was uncomfortable that his sudden disability was so obvious. “Bad night sleep.”
“You look like you could use some good advice.”
Meyer felt the unease swell over his body, but somehow it wasn’t as incapacitating. “I could have used some advice a long time ago.”
“Good advice is always of value, even if it comes too late to change our past.”
Meyer didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to look back. Many times in his life, he wished he could have been blind to the past, and deaf to the future.
“Stop in when you get a break. I could use the company,” Allen said and disappeared back into the corridor.
Meyer put on his uniform and gathered up his equipment, shared a few quick words with Willie who came in late and jumped into his security uniform and dashed out. The next hour passed, along with the completion of the eighth and ninth floor. When Meyer found himself staring at the little green elevator button that marked the eighteenth floor, he couldn’t quite bring himself to press it. Finally, and it was no mean feat, he pushed hard and was lifted to the next nine floors. The corridors were deserted. It was too early for Bryce Allen’s first break.
Meyer bent to his task, this time with a fervor he knew he couldn’t sustain. He also knew he had to complete the eighteenth floor before Allen came out into the corridor in order to avoid any further interaction. The last thing he wanted was to be helped. He worked feverishly; sweeping and mopping but, with all his reserves used, he knew he would not finish in time. He was exhausted—a man who had finally reached his true age, leaving no place to hide. Allen came out of Studio 4 as Meyer wrung out his mop for the last time.
“All I’m getting is depressed women tonight. Maybe it’s the moon,” he said lighting up. “Maybe it’s me. Sometimes I think the listeners sense the mood I’m in, and it determines who calls. Sounds pretty unscientific.”
Except it made sense to Meyer. “It makes perfect sense. People hear more than words. They hear openness, kindness, compassion, and when they do not hear this kind of acceptance they feel it isn’t safe to expose their emotions.”
Bryce Allen was now so convinced Meyer Holbein was so much more than the sum of his mop, he was anxious to explore the man and his past. There was a strain on the custodian’s face tonight that he had never seen. What was eating away at the man with the mop? What was driving his shoulders down until his chin touched his chest? Bryce Allen was as curious about the present as he was respectful of the past and all its secrets. “Well put, and very insightful. And now it’s time for me to return to the women and you to your floor and maybe you’ll sit in for a while. I could sure use the company. I don’t know why,” he said opening the studio door, “but tonight seems a lot harder for me than usual.”
Meyer knew how he felt and nodded appreciatively but the man was gone. Meyer pushed his broom, mop and bucket into the service elevator and dropped down to the seventeenth floor. Tonight this floor and all the ones down to the lobby would require more of him than ever before. They were deserted and he needed company, and his body was already strained from a lack of sleep and the weight of his conscience.
As he got out of the elevator on the seventeenth floor, he turned and caught his reflection in the mirrored panels flanking the elevator doors. An old man, to be sure. Neither clever nor wise. Maybe, a kindly gentleman, Meyer invariably wanted strangers to think. Not an aesthetic or artist. Certainly not a Holbein. Just a man with a name his parents took to disguise their ancestry as so many did fleeing the Nazi occupied territories of Western Europe.
In spite of the fabrication, Meyer would have enjoyed discussing Holbein’s craft with Bryce Allen who seemed genuinely intrigued with the association. Meyer would never have played upon the similarities and relished the opportunity to hear from such a clever and compassionate man about an artist, one of the greatest portrait painters of the Northern European Renaissance. Holbein was an artist known for his exquisite draftsmanship, discerning eye for revealing details, and a clear affirmation of Humanism. Not a man likely to leave his brother in the white winter wasteland to die.
“No, I am not a descendent of Hans Holbein the Elder or his son, Hans Holbein the Younger. I am Meyer the Coward.”
The seventeenth floor took almost twice as long as it should to complete. By the time he had reached the next floor, Meyer knew he wasn’t going to finish his work, or get to school or, if the tightness in his chest was any indication, live out another minute of his life unless he got relief from the crushing weight of his past.
He secreted his cleaning equipment in the service closet and made his way back up to the eighteenth and Studio 4. He slowly pushed open the door as Bryce Allen waved him in and toward one of the two leather guest chairs. Meyer chose the one he’d already sat in and waited, for what he was not certain.
“Marriages take a great deal of work,” Allen continued. “They’re the most important kind of partnership and friendship you will ever have. And you will get out what you’ve put in. If you bring little in the way of sincerity the chances of the partnership surviving are limited.”
Apparently, the listener did not want to hear this. “I work as hard as the next guy,” he said defensively.
“Is the next guy about to lose his wife? Does the next guy drink with his friends three and four times a week until late into the night? And why do we really care about the next guy when it’s your marriage were trying to save?”
“What do you want me to do?”
Meyer hated questions like this. Callers invariably knew what to do, what was right and decent. Mostly they were simply interested in hearing themselves talk, and hoped Dr. Allen would find an excuse for their deplorable behavior and comfort them in their moment of guilt. Meyer tried to brush a speck of paint from his coveralls. It wouldn’t budge. He hadn’t noticed it before and he made a practice—made it a source of pride—to notice things most people would never pay any attention to. Maybe it was a signal from Holbein? Maybe it was a sign that he had to paint over the canvas of his life in order to give himself an opportunity to live?
Bryce Allen took another call, winking several times and making a disdainful face at Meyer, as though they were colleagues and both impatient to move on and find a more lucrative, noteworthy or complicated case that would allow them to bring the full impact of their combined intellect to bear down on the problem. Suddenly Meyer leaned over, picked up the telephone, and dialed a number. Another light flickered to life on the switchboard of Dr. Bryce Allen’s display panel. There were a dozen other callers waiting for their turn on the airways. Allen punched down the last lit button so hard the entire display panel jumped.
“Dr. Bryce Allen, can I help?” he said without taking his glare from his guest.
“I don’t know,” Meyer said, pulling back from the receiver as the reverberation of his voice echoed back into his ear.
“Well, why don’t we get started by introducing ourselves. You know my name but I don’t know yours. At least your first name.”
“Does it matter?”
“It’s a convenience, but not necessary. Tell me—I’ll call you Albert if you don’t mind—what’s on your mind?”
“It’s difficult for me.”
“It’s difficult for most people to express themselves on the air.”
“That’s not true. I’ve been listening to your show for years. People like to talk to you.”
“Not about all issues.”
“Some issues are more painful than others. Some go back many years and turning to face them can be difficult.” Bryce Allen couldn’t bring himself to believe this man’s issues involved a battered wife or runaway daughter, an addiction to drugs or alcohol or any more contemporary problem. Allen could sense the years of suffering that shrouded this man’s every word and movement. Then again, Meyer Holbein could be your average pedophile. Nothing surprised Allen anymore.
Meyer finally noticed how comfortable he was in the leather chair. A few days ago he hadn’t. Now his senses, his very essence, were aware of every nuance and article of life, where he was, how he came to be here, and what might transpire and how he might react to such exposure.
“Albert, you can call me back if this is too difficult for you?”
Meyer finally figured out why Dr. Allen had chosen ‘Albrecht’ as his nom de plume. Along with Albrecht Durer and Matthias Grunewald, Hans Holbein the Younger was one of Germany’s first rank Renaissance artists. It must be a somewhat oblique reference to Durer. Only a man with such sophisticated knowledge like Allen could have derived the conjunction. Meyer recalled how much research he did when he first arrived in America, a refugee like millions of others, clinging to hopes and dreams, trying desperately to forget the nightmare of the last half dozen years. How he’d spent all his free time in school libraries reading and trying to understand what made one artist great, another mediocre while so many fell into obscurity or simply went mad. Most of all he wanted to know the man for whom his family had been renamed.
“It happened a long time ago.”
“Can you tell me how long?” Bryce asked now focusing his energies on the notes he was beginning to take. The rest of his display panel blinked from five to as many as a dozen callers waiting their turn on his couch in the air. Nothing mattered beyond treating the man on his office phone. “Five years? Ten years?”
“Sixty. About sixty years ago now.”
“You’ve been anguishing over something that took place so long ago?”
“It has been with me all my life.”
“Did it involve your family, a friend, or a complete stranger? Something you did or did not do?”
“Something I did. Something I did not do.”
“Albert, I want to help you, but I need to know more, or you can call me back after the show and I’ll recommend a therapist for you.”
“No. I want to speak to you.”
“Then you’ll have to tell me what’s been troubling you all these years.”
“I killed my brother.”
Within seconds, the display panel exploded with callers, all too eager to offer answers to issues that were yet to be revealed. “Go on,” Allen said, now questioning his instincts, as well as why he had decided to call Meyer Albert, from a hundred other names he could have chosen. “Tell me what happened in your own words, and why you blame yourself for your brother’s death.”
Meyer questioned what he was doing, and what did he expect from Dr. Bryce Allen? Absolution, or an emotional pardon? To elicit the compassion of someone uniquely qualified to rewrite the past so he could live out his life without continuing to inhale the fires of sorrow with every breath? If Allen hadn’t looked up just as the receiver came within inches of the base of the phone the line would surely have been cut. Bryce raised and lowered his hand, palm up, a dozen times as quickly as possible indicating that Meyer should continue and not kill the connection.
“One more time Albert, tell me what you think you did or didn’t do to cause your brother’s death.”
The doctor’s question was disbelieving. Why didn’t Allen think that such a terrible thing could have happened, even between two loving, devoted brothers?
“We were being tracked, chased down by a German SS patrol with dogs. It was getting dark. My brother kept falling behind. He was smaller, frail and often sick. He was ten. I was fourteen. I was tall for my age. Sturdy. Dependable. My parents made me promise I would look after David.”
“Go on,” Allen said, sensing a pause he was afraid would deteriorate into renunciation.
“I had no idea where we were. We had been lost for days. I knew to plot a course toward where the sun came up and to trust no one. We were hungry and thirsty. I kept going back to help him. I could hear the team of German shepherds yapping frantically in the distance. I couldn’t tell how far behind they were, only I was certain they’d picked up our scent.
“I could see us being captured, beaten and tortured, as I had been told would happen by those who we met during our escape. My chest hurt. A fire cut at my sides and burned in my heart. I was out of breath. I knew that if I couldn’t go on, David would never survive.”
“I turned and he was gone.”
“Who was gone?”
“My brother. David”
“I couldn’t call out for him or they would have heard me. I couldn’t tell where he was. It was too dark to see any trail but my own in the snow. The Germans didn’t even need guard dogs, my trail was so clear.”
“What is there to say?”
“How did you escape?”
“I heard a commotion, the guards yelling, a gunshot rang out. I waited for them to continue the chase, but they never did.”
“And you think they found your brother?”
“And that they were satisfied with the death of one small boy rather than thinking that there was another.”
“And you think they killed him because you couldn’t save him? Is that what you’re telling me?”
What more could there be, Bryce scribbled out on his note pad. “Yes.”
“So I stopped calling back to David long before they caught him.”
“So he couldn’t follow you?”
“So they would find him and I might escape.”
“Which is exactly what you think happened.”
“I know it happened. There can be no denying that I sacrificed him in order to save myself. I killed him so that I could live.”
Bryce Allen didn’t see it coming. He had anticipated that an accident had taken Meyer’s younger brother and that the older boy did whatever he could, and beyond that, nothing could have been done by the bravest or smartest to save the boy. He had been wrong. But how do you judge a man in a time of war? And were the standards of conduct the same for a boy? How do you throw down the gavel on the side of good judgment or life-threatening fear? Every phone line was throbbing with callers. Bryce knew that no matter what, this would be the last one of the night.
“Had you called out and kept in contact, do you think you both would have survived? That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?”
“I think that’s obvious.”
“If I were fourteen years old, frightened out of my wits, thinking I was going to die at any moment and had the responsibility to keep my younger brother alive, I don’t think my mind would be so clear, my judgment so righteous.”
“What if you wanted your younger brother dead since his first squeal? What if you resented his handsome little face and quick mind and your parents clear preference for his endearing charm?”
“I wouldn’t judge you.”
“Then you can’t help me.”
“Then the only thing you want is for me to agree with you, that you killed him, so you can be at peace because you shed some light on the poison that has been festering in you for six decades. You want me to say you killed your brother because you were jealous, envious, everything that most older brothers are anyway? I can’t do it, Albert. I wouldn’t let you off so easily. You did what you did under terrible circumstances. Under conditions that it’s impossible to comprehend and unless you took a gun and shot him, I do not believe you purposely killed your baby brother.”
“Then you would be wrong.”
“I’ve been wrong before, but I’m definitely not wrong about this. I’m just surprised you managed to save yourself. And I’m saddened to hear that you’ve been blaming yourself for so long for something that was not your fault. You did what you could for as long as you could. Most fourteen year old boys would have given up long before David was lost.”
“I don’t know.”
“So for all these years, you’ve believed you were responsible for your brother’s death?”
“It never leaves me.”
“Then I would ask you to do a favor for me.”
“Yes. What is it?”
“Think about what I’ve said and call me back tomorrow. Anytime, but call me.”
“What will that solve?”
“You may take into consideration what I’ve said.”
“You’re only trying to make me feel better.”
“Not at all.”
“I don’t know.”
“Please. Think about it and call me back.”
Meyer almost dropped down the receiver without saying good night. When he did, Bryce Allen returned the salutation and went onto the next caller without skipping a beat. Meyer got up and walked out of the studio feeling cheated and confused. It was difficult for him to accept, revealing what he had done to his young brother on the air. “What must everyone think of me?” he asked himself as he went down the passenger elevator.
Willie nodded, “You hear the murderer?”
“The guy on with Dr. Allen. Son of a bitch murdered his brother sixty years ago and now wants absolution. I hate those kinds of bastards. You know, spending all their lives searching for forgiveness for their crimes.”
“I wasn’t listening.”
“Hey,” he asked, as Meyer continued toward the front door. “Where are you going?”
“I have to go out for a while.”
“Now? You have five, almost six hours to go.”
Meyer stood with his shoulder against the door. “Could you let me out?”
Willie shook his head and pushed the button that released the electronic lock that engaged the doors leading out to the street. He watched the old man walk away, now with a more noticeable bend in his back.
Meyer threw money into the bus’s coin box and was back in his house less than a half hour later. “You think that’s it,” he asked the vision in his bathroom mirror. “You think that will right my wrong? Bring back my David?”
He could make out the evening image of his brother staggering back behind him, gasping for air, exhausted, panicked as the pack of dogs drew close. The night and the patrols were closing in. If he could only last another few minutes, Meyer reasoned in his own terror, he might escape. He had to. He promised his parents he would. That promise was made first, the one where he pledged to protect his brother he reasoned again, as an afterthought. How could he be held to such standards? How much more could have been asked of him short of sacrificing his own life?
Wouldn’t his father have appreciated his cleverness when he picked up the rock and hurled it toward the tree just ahead of where he saw David struggling? His mother might have questioned it, but Meyer knew his father would have understood. The impact of the stone had the expected result, sending a white shower of snow from the branches. It was as if the night exploded in a burst of white that fell all around the astonished young boy who, Meyer believed, couldn’t have seen him throw the stone or know the reason for the shower of snow raining down upon him.
Meyer crouched as the pitch of thrashing snarling dogs increased. Sharp, threatening commands echoed out over the darkened field of white. Meyer slowly backed himself into a thicket, safe from the patrol that had turned its full attention on the tree that had suddenly shed its cover. Meyer turned and never looked back. Never wondered if his brother had escaped, been tortured, even caught at all.
As soon as the stories of the death camps came out, he accepted the fact that David had been taken to such a prison and died there. He knew his age was against him. His inherent frailty was easy prey for the camp guards and the ravages of illness. And, if he survived the routine of the camp, there was no way he would have escaped the ovens, Meyer concluded as he sealed off the windows, opened the stove door, turned on the gas and, finally, pondered whether David’s gold locket was also a casualty of war.
He fell back on the bed in his one room apartment and stared blankly up at the white ceiling as David must have stared up at the shower of snow, knowing that beyond this one event little would be left of his life.
Arthur Davis asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.