Authors: Patty Friedmann
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Dramas & Plays, #Regional & Cultural, #European, #World Literature, #Jewish, #Drama & Plays, #Continental European, #Literary Fiction, #Historical, #Fiction, #Novel, #Judaica, #Jewish Interest, #Holocaust, #New Orleans, #love story, #Three Novellas, #Jews, #Southern Jews, #Survivor’s Guilt, #Family Novel, #Orthodox Jewish Literature, #Dysfunctional Family, #Psychosomatic Illness
"So, tell me everything," she said, now that we weren't strolling and commenting and looking and enjoying silence.
"I guess I came here to tell you I don't know anything."
She gave me a sad smile. "Which pretty much tells me everything, huh."
We ate in silence for a while. "You don't know what you're doing, but you have to find out, don't you," she said when she was halfway through her hamburger. Letty was a terrific eater. I liked her for that.
"I've narrowed down maybe one thing," I said. "I'm not going back to Germany. But that's sort of like saying I've decided to continue breathing. It's not a surprising choice."
Letty looked around us. It wasn't crowded at this time of the afternoon. "Nobody's waiting for a table," she said. "We'll leave a big tip. Take your time. You can tell me whatever you want, and I'll help you think." I looked at her with my eyes open extra wide: I figured she knew a lot had to do with her, and I wasn't going to say it. "You don't have to tell me everything," she said. She wasn't flirty or sexy. She was just good.
"I think I can talk to you about my mother," I said. "That's where I would have to start, and it's where I don't want to start at all." She opened her mouth to speak, thought better of it, and said nothing. "As I said, I don't know anything," I said.
I let her take that in. "I'll see my parents at dinnertime," she said. "I can't imagine not knowing. As much as I struggle with them and realize I'll never please them, I have to know I'll see them."
"I guess it's a matter of degrees," I said, trying to lighten things up. I didn't want her parents in the same mood globe with my mother.
I told her I had done what I could, then I told her that no sooner had I walked away from the Red Cross ready never to know than I'd gone back and put in my name.
"Well, of course," she said. "You felt sorry for her. You couldn't let her go on not knowing where you were."
"Thank you," I said. I hadn't understood before. I needed
to know. But I couldn't make my mother do that, too, if she was alive. Bernard Kuper needed to be reachable in New York.
I couldn't stay in New Orleans forever. I couldn't really stay for more than a few days. I had my discharge papers, and I had one pair of slacks and two shirts that I washed out in my hotel room, but that was not the way I was going to spend all my sad savings. I also wasn't as happy as I'd once been, eating hamburgers in air conditioning.
I went to the booth on the corner near the hotel and phoned Ted's parents' house on the odd chance that he was back in the city. Not only was he back in the city, he was staying with them. Ted had permanency. His mother could have found him after the war if she'd been separated from him: he was right upstairs. Only to me did that thought make sense. "What are you doing here?" he said. "Oh, wait, it's Letty. You're crazy."
"I'm standing in a hot phone booth, I haven't seen you in two years, and that's what you've got to say for yourself?"
"No, Bernie, welcome home. Seriously, I'm glad you're here. You got time for a drink?" I paused, back in my frugal frame, and he remembered me. "Hey, I said
. I'm paying. I've got more money than I know what to do with."
I went to his house to meet up with him. His father wouldn't be home with the car until after five, but he said there was no point in waiting to get together: the liquor cabinet was full of full bottles. Ted knew Letty well because Ted had lived four houses down from her since they were in grade school, and Letty's house was between Fontainebleau and his house. I thought about taking the long route, of getting off the bus at Claiborne and walking, but it was too hot. No one at Letty's would be out in the heat of the afternoon except maybe Letty, and I wouldn't mind running into her.
No sooner had I turned into the boulevard than I saw Mrs. Adler coming toward me with the dog on the leash. They weren't even on the neutral ground where most people walked dogs to keep lawns clean. She hesitated in her step for such a small fraction of a second that I wasn't sure I saw it, then kept coming straight toward me. I couldn't turn back. She reined in the dog so hard he came up on his back feet, and she, too, pulled up short. She seemed almost military; her feet came together, one-two.
"Well, well," she said.
"Hello," I said.
"I trust you are
coming to my house."
It had been a long time since I'd walked anywhere in uniform and been greeted with any sort of rudeness, so her tone stunned me. I told her no. I'd been in the army too long just to shake my head. I'd also been in the army too long to lose my perfect posture.
"Glad to hear it," she said. Her voice was cheery, as if I'd just told her I'd won a thousand dollars, but I could read her expression. She wanted me to know she had no use for me.
"Good to have run into you," I said. I smiled and I walked on, as if this were a crowded New York sidewalk.
I didn't look back. I was shaking somewhere down deep where the tremors didn't reach the surface. I knew that dog had been swung around on that leash as if he were on a carnival ride, then walked back toward their house at the slowest possible pace. She was watching me. I was kind. I could have dawdled, stopped to look for four-leaf clovers, but I moved purposefully, rang the bell at Ted's, made raucous male noise when he answered and ushered me in. I clearly was expected in case Mrs. Adler wondered.
"I saw Letty's mother walking the dog just now," I said. "I need a drink."
"What'd you say to her?"
"Hello, it's nice to see you. Well, basically that's what I said."
Ted whooped so loud his mother came running into what must have been the bar in their house. "Ma, the Army made a killer out of Bernie," he said.
* * *
Ted had his own interests at heart. He was going back to Tulane on the GI Bill, and he wanted me to stay in New Orleans and go to school and drink with him. I didn't know why I should go to college when I already could claim a degree. But that was the least of it. I had to be found in New York, I'd told him. "This is a telegraphic world," he had said. "You can be found in New York no matter where you are."
It didn't help that Ted had decided that now I could be Letty's boyfriend. Conveniently, he had forgotten that trying to court the Adlers' only child was impossible for a refugee. I was a fierce soldier who could look Mrs. Adler in the eye, he said, so why not stay in New Orleans and run around with him?
I phoned Axel from the phone booth that I was beginning to think was my own. I had memorized the number on the phone because everyone I called could call me back and spare me the need to hoard coins. To Axel, long distance charges were just part of the cost of doing business.
"Look, buddy," he said in English. "I knew when you detoured through New Orleans that you weren't coming back."
"I didn't say I wasn't coming back," I said. "I'm calling to talk to you about what I should do. You're my friend. The only friend I've got with good sense." I realized he might think I had a lot of friends and he wasn't important anymore. "Though I really only have one other friend."
"You calling for my opinion?" I told him yes. "Okay, you've got to remember, you're not getting an unprejudiced opinion. You know that?" He didn't wait for me to say anything. "What you do affects me. We made a deal. You serve, I stay. We both kept the deal. I've got a place for you in the business. I'll always have a place for you in the business. You're family to me. If you come, it works. If you don't come, it works, too. I like having you around. So you've got to do what works for your sake, not mine. You've got something good down there, you stay. You've definitely got something good up here, so you decide what's better. Simple as that. You don't hurt my feelings."
I told him I had nothing down here. He said, "You've got a girl?" I said I did. "Then you've got something I don't have. I tell you, Bernie, between us we're a perfect guy. We're always a perfect guy. Each of us has what the other guy doesn't. Best thing, you bring her up here."
I let that go right past me. It had to go right past me. I didn't know why, but I'd read something on Letty that told me she wasn't going to leave New Orleans, even when she finished school. It was as if she had a battle to fight with her parents, and until she won it, until she proved something, she couldn't leave. Since her parents had all the power, since they always would judge her harshly, she never was going to win. I told him I would come up to see him about introducing the business in the South. Then he could get himself a southern girl. He let that go right past him, too.
* * *
I rented a room before I phoned Letty. I needed so little space. All I owned were my clothes and a lock box in which I kept my mother's letters, my cash, my gold coin, and the ring. I didn't even have any of Axel's merchandise; the few pieces I had were stored at Letty's house, in her bedroom, where even Louise wouldn't bother to look. All I needed were a bed and a closet. The house was on Broadway, close to the river, a bus ride from the Tulane campus, so the landlady was accustomed to young men who didn't quite know how to take care of themselves. She gave me ice box privileges and said I could use the kitchen between five and six. I told her I observed dietary laws, but not to worry; I'd had to compromise in the Army. The military already was doing enough for the Jews, so I knew better than to ask for separate dishes or foods prepared by strictest Jewish law. "Boy, if you eat actual food, you're doing a sight better than most of the ones I usually get," she said. "Kids don't come to Tulane to eat. They come to drink."
There was a telephone on a table at the foot of the stairs, and I dialed Letty's private number as soon as I moved in. When she answered, and I told her who it was, she said, "I don't want to talk to you," and hung up. I dialed again. "Don't call me," she said before I could speak. I dialed again. She didn't answer.
* * *
I spent the next two days more alone than I had been in the six years since I left Stuttgart. Here I had committed to living in this city for only one reason, this girl named Letty, and she had told me not to call her. If Letty was finished with me, I had chosen a life for nothing. I moved forward because I had no other choice. I would hope I could repair things with Letty, and in the meantime I would establish myself, but I was barely in my senses, barely thinking. I made a point of being alone. I wasn't in the company of friends or necessary strangers. I don't mean to say that I wandered aimlessly in solitude. I kept busy, looking for work, speaking from time to time to one frightening person at a time for a few minutes. There is no greater solitude than going as a mendicant for work. I walked everywhere, finding buses and streetcars too distracting, too full of possibilities for conversations that might lead somewhere. I was trying to think.
And nothing new came to my mind. I was clear. I had rented a room. It was by the week, not a commitment to the landlady, but a commitment to me. I was looking for a way to earn money. I hadn't found it yet, but I was looking in New Orleans, and I wasn't carrying Axel's gifts because I couldn't get them from Letty. So I was telling myself that I was trying to stay in New Orleans. This meant that I loved Letty, because I was hot and lonely, and I had no other reason to be in this strange, mean little city. I loved Letty, and I would have to make her the center of my life. And just because she was angry, it didn't mean she was finished.
I wrote her a letter. On the return address, I put the street number but not my name, just in case someone else in the house collected the mail and was the type to confiscate it. All I said was that I didn't know why she was angry, but I loved her and wanted to apologize. I gave her the phone number at the landlady's house. I was sure if a girl called it would be all right. The landlady was rooting for me. Not with Letty in particular, but with life in general. And all she knew was that I ate instead of drank.
Two days, then three days, then four days, and she didn't phone. I told the landlady at the outset that I was expecting a call, and with her I saw no need to say it again. With the two other roomers I had less faith. They had rooms on the second floor, while mine was on the third, and as far as I knew, they never took off their shoes, because when the phone rang, one or the other clobbered down the steps so loudly that I knew he was wearing off the varnish. I placed a pencil and paper tablet next to the phone. "Hey, you gotta trust us," one of them said. "We know it's a girl." "At some point it might be a job," I said. "You won't get all crazy about a job," he said. I remember learning his name that day.
On the fifth day I received a letter.
I appreciate your taking the time to write to me. I find it difficult to believe that you don't know why I'm so upset, but maybe you still have some cultural differences, so that could be the reason for behavior that I think is inexcusable. I would be willing to talk to you to hear what you have to say. I think it would be best to see you in person and not talk on the phone. I see that you live on Broadway, which is walking distance from the drugstore. I will meet you there at three o'clock on Friday.
I checked the postmark. Tuesday. Today was Friday. I had an hour to get to K&B. The landlady was standing over me, watching. She had nothing else to do. This was why she rented rooms. She had nothing else to do. "I have an hour to get to K&B," I said. "If this had come tomorrow, it would have been a story straight out of Thomas Hardy."
"You need to go to college," she said.
"Why?" I said, and she laughed.
* * *
I thought I'd arrived before Letty had because I hadn't seen her car outside, and she wasn't waiting anywhere near the soda fountain. I was on the minute. The military would do that to a guy. So would caring. I wasn't there to pretend I didn't care. Maybe Letty was going to do a lot of pretending. But I had a feeling she wasn't. She wasn't that kind of girl.