This story is the second-place winner of the 2020 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2020 stories were judged by Israeli-American author Ruby Namdar. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn more about the contest.
Today, another of my usual jogs—the thousandth step of a thousandth run, every run varied enough to include something new. It may just be a detail noticed on a familiar house, the tile of a fountain beyond an overgrown wall. I live in an old neighborhood and have peeked into quite a few windows, through courtyards, over backyard gates to glimpse some new and private architectural delight. Admittedly it’s not all professional interest. I find myself struggling through shrubbery to those large picture windows fronting the living room. There may be an amazing paneled ceiling or Batchelder fireplace, on top of the mantel, photos of family, keepsakes and children’s debris on the piano. I wonder about the illusory protection this thin pane of glass provides, separating these private lives from the outside world. After my peeking I run on. This continuous scanning frees my mind. It is the one time of the day I am empty, unguarded and anonymous in an oversized hat and ratty T-shirt.
Sometimes I think of my children: Michael, my firstborn, named to honor my father, passed away now 15 years, or James, my new baby, and feel a joyous pain of separation, knowing they’ll be mine in half an hour. Sometimes I rechew all my mistakes at work, my failings, my anxieties, and shake them from my head as the steps continue.
Today, the tree trimmers are out. They’ve uncovered a beautiful stained-glass window. It’s of a galleon, above which floats a banner, “In God We Fear.” I stray as I jog, sometimes easily gone an hour and a half or two. Andrew’s joked that he half expects me to return from a run saying, “You know, I never realized how red the Golden Gate bridge really is!”
In an almost delirious state, it didn’t occur to me the immensity of how he came to be there at all.
I turn onto Waring Street to head back. On the corner sits another average Spanish house, roughly stuccoed, flat roof, mean and frugal by the standards of its day. I barely glance as I pad by the breakfast room window when I see a face staring at me, framed, frozen. The window offers no veil of privacy, nor does the sitter require it, staring expectantly at me. I keep running.
It is the face of my father.
My feet carry me forward, disconnected from any volition. No further meanderings or pretty buildings fog this impression. I run straight home and tell no one. It just couldn’t be.
Two days later I jog again. I am the victim of both habit and a compulsion to explore. It seemed a sufficient amount of time had passed to let whatever hallucination was possibly possessing my mind to fade. One thing I inherited from my father was a clear-headedness, maybe a stubbornness favoring the rational. But I also couldn’t escape his European superstitions so I retrace my path…in reverse. No one appears at the breakfast room window, but as I turn the corner I see his back to me, standing there, watering the lawn in an undershirt.
He turns. “I want to see my grandson.”
That birthright. I didn’t have to ask which son he spoke of.
“Are you sure?”
“He’s my namesake!” his temper rising.
“I don’t know. I mean, I haven’t told anyone about seeing you, not even Andrew.”
He steps over and turns off the water, still holding the hose.
I continue, “You know, Mom is the one who really needs you. You wouldn’t believe 16 years later, she’s still…”
“She’s changed,” my father replies. “That would do no good. I made sure she was well taken care of.”
“Financially, yes,” I say, “but she’s an emotional wreck.”
Though still stern, I find my father much more confidential in this setting, a manner I could never afford with him since he died before my adulthood.
“You found everything?” he queries.
“Yes, during shiva, the hidden krugerrands and moldy bills? You always wanted to be prepared just in case. It all got deposited and yes, she’s doing very well with the carwashes. You know she wants to sell.”
“She should have a long time ago. She doesn’t need to work, driving around in that big Jaguar. What’s she thinking? Sell and enjoy life.”
“She’s way too sentimental,” I counter.
“Well,” he pauses, “I need that money.”
“The money we found hidden in the house after you died?”
“You’ve got to be kidding. It’s long gone. I mean what do you need money for anyway, in your state?”
“I’m a fugitive.” He then corrects himself, “Remember, I’m still your father. I’m sorry, but that was my money. I said I need it and that’s enough. It’s not your place to ask why.”
“But I can’t ask Mom for it, she’d be hysterical. How much was there anyway?”
“Twenty thousand,” he answers smoothly. I start to feel light-headed.
“Next Tuesday we’ll meet,” he continues. “Bring the money. Cash. Hundreds or fifties…We can have lunch. Any good places around here?”
“There’s a Sizzler on Highland.” I remember this had been one of my dad’s favorite places. He smiles then, that broad infectious smile that lightens his whole round, tanned bald face from ear to ear. “They still have those places?”
“Sure, same menu too, I think.”
“Okay then, Lindale. I’ll see you next Tuesday, with the money. And remember to bring Michael.” He walks back inside the squat house and closes the door.
What can I think at this point? There’s so much I’ve forgotten that’s important—how I knew the moment he died that we are not just material things, though my lack of belief denied it; because at the moment he passed, from what could only be described as a suffering animal state, a flaccid body entwined with bags and tubes and lines, nothing wretchedly even human, he was still my father. But the moment his last breath slowly passed, I could see the almost vapor of him rising and his body, inert, lay like an indifferent carcass. With all the detachment of a mortician, I sensed his body no longer held a soul. Where did that go?
The money would be a problem, yes. I had $10,000 or so in my freelance architecture account and the rest I could swing from our personal. Luckily I was the account keeper and Andrew, trusting and generous, might not even need to know, or catch on. It would wipe out the inklings of a college fund and the Paris trip we were planning, but how could I make this a financial decision! “Let’s face it,” I smile, “My father returned from the dead! To see me and my son!”
I realized I had jogged four blocks past my street but couldn’t turn yet. Should I tell Andrew? My mom, certainly no, my siblings, our tight-knit family, no, no, too complicated. Andrew? I debated and put that off…the money thing too, we’ll see.
I began running up the steep hill toward home and started planning what I would bring—those mementos severely spare that I had snuck away before the house
sold—the documents he kept in a special folder: an onionskin death certificate of his father, shot two days after liberation by some freewheeling yid-haters. My father brandished this evidence to my sensitive med-school brother when he was dating an Asian woman:
“This is why you stay with your own. You can’t trust them!”
Or the pointedly civil and bureaucratic carbon copy of the letter mailed to the German government requesting restitution for the amount of time spent in labor and concentration camps, the time spans and camps duly noted, his release date from the TB ward in the German countryside and a ship’s manifest with his name listed. Or the later one, from his internist, once again attempting to request funds from the German government—his catastrophic stroke at the unkind age of 45 due to the physical abuse he received there. The resulting paralysis, slow recovery of speech, high blood pressure, future mild strokes, dialysis, liver failure, all an unavoidable consequence of his mistreatment.
There were the few photographs, too. A studio one of him as a boy posing with his younger brother, Shmuel. They were dressed in sailor tops and short pants. His brother sat on a bicycle and my father stood behind him, his hand resting on his brother’s shoulder. There was another photo of him as a young man in Switzerland I’d only discovered after his death, that confirmed what some distant aunt had boasted: that my father was a handsome, imperious man; an intellectual staring far beyond the Swiss Alps in a full-length wool coat—which seemed so off-base from the working man, no bullshit, love America at all costs cynic, that I imagined it a total revisionist romantic fabrication. And another I had found after his death. It showed him emaciated, standing between two equally emaciated men—the usual drab of museum archives: liberated inmates in striped pajamas with shaven heads. They all stood quite close, without touching, looking directly at the camera in a long flat field, an ambiguous forest beyond, like a mocking tableau of three skeletons on holiday. The man to his right stood defiantly straight even though he was noticeably shorter than my father or perhaps because of that. I wondered who decided that these people at that moment should be remembered by a photograph? Why did my father end up with the picture? Between these there was nothing, and I could finally fill this in.
And of course there were the 3x5s, the famous 3x5s that he used at the house and would democratically write everything on. For years after his death we would find these and laugh, pieces of him spilling over in their everyday banality. Generally they were indecipherable electrical diagrams, how to rewire motors at the carwash; or they could be his latest stock choices (carefully watched but never acted upon). Most often it was a list of things to do that day. My god, he even wrote his will on a 3×5!
“To Levi, my oldest son, My next surgery is in two weeks. The chances are 50/50. In the event of my death I’ve made all the arrangements at Chevra Kadisha. I love you.”
I would bring these mementos and wear the one item I had from my father, an old Timex watch with a cracked crystal that still dependably slogged on as the slogan promised. I could finally ask him about all these things, his life, his childhood, his war experiences, never revealed to me.
In an almost delirious state, it didn’t occur to me the immensity of how he came to be there at all. What state he was in. I never believed in heaven and hell. His ordinary appearance only confirmed it. But he had to have come from somewhere, beyond…did it matter?
I realize I have run full speed up the usually onerous hill, unwinded. I circle the steps, entering the courtyard of our apartment building, always astonished by its beauty—the dark compression of the archway opening up to a private garden, stately and symmetric, crowned with bougainvillea and palm trees, a bubbling fountain. We get to live here, my husband, my children, myself, in this rent-controlled paradise. In the prime top-two floors at the rear of the courtyard, we survey the realm of this Eden and beyond, hills, tiled roofs, trees. You can’t even see the strip club at the corner.
That interim weekend I take Michael to the carwash. He squats next to the giant bucket of quarters, transferring them in small fistfuls to milk cartons.
“It takes a long time moving them,” he concentrates.
“You’re doing a great job. Tell you what, you guess the number of quarters spilled on the floor and you can have them.” Years spent helping my father at work rendered my quarter-estimating abilities amazingly acute. I could guess $5, give or take a quarter, just by the feel and weight in my palm. “Three dollars?” he suggests.
“We can use it to buy your ice cream bar,” I smile. Afterwards we’d always walk past the vacuums and over the high concrete curb, to collect our well-earned treats at the liquor store.
I had all my mementos in a folder by my bed, ready. Falling asleep that night, I remembered one of the few stories he actually did relate to me. I was maybe 15 years old, and it involved his escape from a death march.
“There were hundreds of us, maybe thousands,” he told me, “with one guard at front, one guard at back and one walking with a big dog, in between. They told us we shouldn’t think about escaping because for every person that tried, 20 would be executed. I figured they were going to kill us anyway, or I’d collapse on the march, so when we came by this forest, I and a few other men took our chance and jumped away.”
“Did they see you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Weren’t you worried about them shooting all those people because of you?”
“I figured death was waiting for us regardless. I had to take things into my own hands.”
Tomorrow I’d go to the bank, and the next day lunch.
I arrive at the Sizzler late, my father already seated at the booth. I shuffle Michael in between us so he can take a good look at his grandson. “The menu hasn’t changed.” He smiles at Michael but keeps scanning the room. “I don’t know how safe it is for me.”
He looks down at Michael.
“You know Michael, he looks like my brother, Shmuel.” I didn’t know how to explain this apparition to my son, so I hadn’t, or needed to.
“Do you listen to your mom?” my father asks. Michael bows his head seriously. “Good. You’ve got to honor your parents. And your family. That’s the most important thing.”
“You’ve got a little brother?” Michael shakes his head again.
“Take care of him. But most important, take care of yourself. No one’s gonna look out for you. I mean when push comes to shove you’ve got to stand on your own two feet. Take me, I should have been dead at 18 if they had their way, but I wouldn’t let them.” He pauses.
“You know, I was supposed to, I mean I wanted to ask you if your mother keeps in touch.”
“My friends, from the war. I haven’t run into any of them here.”
“You had friends?”
My father smiles, “You should remember. We would have lunch sometimes. I would bring you.”
“Yes, I remember, but no, I don’t think Mom does.”
“I should have stayed in touch. It’s a regret.”
He looks over at the closed folder, then turns to me, “You bring the money?”
“Yes, here it is in bills.” The fact that I had it withdrawn as cash already reduced the pain of its departure. At the bank, it had been immediately deducted from my account so I no longer felt any normal attachment.
Dad shakes the full envelope at Michael, smiling, “Now, do you know how many quarters $20,000 is?”
He hadn’t yet asked me anything, not about myself or my family or work. Would he have been proud that I was an architect? Neither about my siblings, nor his widow. He scans the room again looking anxious.
I falter, “You know I’m an architect.”
“Of course,” he says.
“I thought you’d like to know since you were an engineer and we built the house. That must have affected me. Oh, and I brought all these things to show you,” I stammer opening up the folder.
“Lindale, I don’t need to see them. I see it all. I know all about you. That’s why I came to you. The other children, or your mom, it might have been too much. I knew you’d be reliable. I know it’s a lot of money, but you’ll be okay, you’ll see. And I wanted to see my grandson.”
I start to feel queasy. It occurs to me that my father had grown a moustache in the week since I’d seen him. It was the moustache of my adolescent years, but I recalled it accompanied by muttonchop sideburns—that was as far as he got into the hippie movement.
The waitress interrupts placing the meals in front of us.
Dad nods, then looks straight at me, “You know they cheated me. I took that zero life and turned it into something good, came here, married your mom, had four children, a successful business, but then they took it all away again—put me in a coma. I had to learn how to speak and walk all over; couldn’t sputter words out, how angry I was; but I had no shame. I got 20 more years out of the miserable broken body and kept going. So, I said no. Even in this state, I get to see you and my grandson. That’s why you’ve got to make your own way…I’m sorry, Lindale, I have to go.”
“I don’t understand, you just got here. Don’t you want to eat?” I forget how crazy that must have sounded. He puts the envelope in his jacket pocket. “Aren’t you at all interested in us?”
“I’ve been here too long already. You must know my situation is not allowed. They’ll be looking for me. I don’t want to go back,” the same air of authority and sternness. But I was an adult. I had waited so long to find out his past, and now, rehearsing for a week, what had I to lose?
In quick step, he stands up, places some fives on the table and walks out. I grab Michael’s hand and follow him to the street corner.
“You don’t look right,” I point at his moustache. He walks straight and rigidly, a memory I could only so faintly grasp as most of his life was the forceful uneven gait of the stroke victim.
“It changes,” he replies, “I still love you. I miss our family. You know, it was always the most important thing to me.”
“No, I mean there’s something not right. Why do you look younger than when you died?” He walks faster.
“Things work different here. But still everything runs on money. Like during the war. Like always. Some things you can’t escape. I have to go.” He kisses me on the forehead and bows down, shaking Michael’s hand. “Goodbye, my grandson, goodbye Lindale!” He waves as he crosses the street. “Remember me.”
Michael keeps pulling my arm, “Mom, Mom, was that Grandpa Michael?”
“Yes…no…I mean no, he wasn’t.” I look up. “He’s an imposter.”
I scream across the street to his back, “You’re an imposter, a thief and a scam artist! An imposter!” He keeps walking as I stand still, repeating my accusations, not following.
I walk with Michael back to the car.
“Was that a bad guy?” Michael looks to me.
“Yes, a mean man.” I’m calm and seething. We get in the car.
“Mom, how much is $20,000?”
“Eighty thousand quarters,” I answer flatly.
“That’s what I thought,” he brightens, “Whew, that’s a lot!”
We drive the rest of the way home mostly in silence. I’ve learned it’s best not to tell your child that something’s a secret. It will only make him ache to reveal it to his father; even Michael, so loyal, so earnest. So I say nothing more, and we move onto his day at school. I know Andrew will be working late that night. By tomorrow it will be far from Michael’s mind.
We get home and I replace all the fragile documents in their blue folder, back to their discreet spot in my filing cabinet. Like my father, I forget about the index cards. As I throw my pants into the laundry, a few fall out of the pocket. I cringe and gather all of them, huddling in the corner of the bathroom. I look through each, hoping to reach beyond the encoding, “Ill 300, iii200, buy at 150” or the next five intersecting lines, “Motor one, motor two, motor three 110v.” It’s a jumble, just a meaningless jumble. I wish I could cry; instead I carefully place them back away. I hate myself and am half-asleep when Andrew comes home. I know I won’t tell.
That didn’t mean I let it go. The next morning, too impatient to wait for a jogging opportunity, I drive by the Spanish house. A rental placard is already up. Undeterred, I call the number and the following day, walking with the realtor through the blank white spaces, ask about the previous tenants. “Did they leave the place in good shape? Who were they?”
The realtor replies, “He was here short term and paid in cash. I only met him once when I gave him the keys. He was with this other guy, I think he called him Isaac. That was my uncle’s name so I remembered.”
That was it.
From then on, my only way of dealing with the catastrophe was to avoid running by the entire block. I didn’t even want to glimpse the house as if it were a black hole that would engulf me. It occupied a strange hole in my body too, one I could viscerally feel but mainly ignored its enormity, a huge $20,000 blip.
I had decided to take a long dusk run, one that would take me towards the golden sunset and back again. Although the first few miles were boring, the breadth of the run ran through the Beverly Hills flats, a beautiful loop from Maple Drive to Roxbury and back, through broad streets fringed with overhanging trees and unblemished mansions that convincingly argued money could buy happiness. You never had to worry about cars, for the vista was always clear and a stop sign interrupted each block.
That’s when it came to me—the photograph of the three men. Maybe these were the ones my father escaped with. What happened to them? Some of his friends I know landed in Los Angeles, sliding into the edges of society. My father, through self-will, avoided this fate; married, fathered children, kept this nucleus tight around him. While my mother sympathized with these men, I don’t think either of my parents felt comfortable inviting these alcoholics and transients into our family home.
On certain days, as a child when I’d accompany my father to the carwashes, we’d take an impromptu drive at lunchtime, usually to some semi-seedy destination like the Santa Monica Pier, Hollywood Boulevard or Grand Central Market downtown; places where roaming shells of haunted people would be tolerated unnoticed. He’d pick up one of these old friends and as he reminded me, treat him to a lunch at, frequently, Sizzler. The talk would be small, about acquaintances, avoiding particulars, the past and the guilt of my father’s prosperity and family. Afterwards, my dad would reach deep into his pocket, pulling out a fistful of quarters—that’s how he’d pay the check, straight from the carwash larders, and teased me into guessing its amount. A few of these friends I know died or committed suicide, but a few must have survived, maybe one he had ‘regrets’ about.
Perhaps one day, years later, this friend ran into a stranger looking uncannily like my father, and the idea was born. All they’d have to do is find me, easy enough and follow me for a week, a day even. We assume our personal lives are so secure, but they’re easily uncovered, and in a week they’d have all the details they needed. Replaying it, I realized how few details the imposter actually provided. My father, my real father, would have been so disappointed in me—his girl whom he instructed how to rotate tires, shoot pistols, rewire machinery, be self-reliant and nobody’s fool—how could I have fallen for such a scam?
I had waited so long to find out his past, and now, rehearsing for a week, what had I to lose?
“I came to you because I knew you were the most levelheaded…” What crap! I was the deluded one who wanted to believe. My real father would have broken into a fully loaded laugh at the brilliance of it all. That’s why it had to happen so quickly, so efficiently. That’s why he didn’t want me to show the folder—these were actual personal items that he’d have no idea about. I ignored the slight physical differences, the youthfulness, the gait. It was all just so rationally explained.
“Mom,” I call her as soon as I reach our apartment. “Do you remember any of Dad’s friends when we lived at the old house?”
“You mean the carwash guys or his chess buddies?”
“No, the ones he was in the war with?”
“Well, there were a few. Tibi, you remember? I think he moved to Israel. And then there was Shuni, and Alex, and Isaac.”
“Isaac?” I strain, “Who was he?”
“He was in the camps with your father. And then he came to LA. He actually gave your father his first job, at the drive-through dairy in Culver City. They used to have those.”
“What happened to him?”
“Well, your poppa went to work at RCA after that, before he got the idea for the car washes. I remember Isaac had some crazy idea for his own business then, a coin-operated dairy. He wanted your dad to invest.”
“Of course not. Your father told him that was not such a smart business. Cars and milk aren’t the same thing.”
“How come I never heard about this?”
“You know your father. All I know is after that Kicsi didn’t come to the house much.”
“Isaac’s nickname. You know what that means?”
“Sure,” I waver, “Small in Hungarian. Do you know where he’s at now? I want to ask him something about Dad.”
“Oh, he was in pretty bad shape back then. God willing he’s still around, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I haven’t heard anything about him since after your Poppa died. If you want, I can check with my Holocaust Advisory Board. They have a good network.”
“Okay. Thanks, Mom.”
I sink into my chair and stare out the window, a twilight view.
“Dinner’s ready,” Andrew calls. I hang up and walk out, looking into the boys’ room. Michael sits on the floor, studiously reading the latest piece of consumable kids literature while James snores with satisfied abandon in his crib.
“I’m going to take a quick shower, love,” I yell to Andrew.
What was this money to me? If I look at it rightly, it was just a form of involuntary charity, one this man probably never received from either my father or his transgressors and that would offer him in his old age some measure of solace. I relax as the water pours over me.
Weeks pass and I’m back to the old habit of peeking and avoiding. My knees hurt so I haven’t been jogging as far. My mom calls when I return from a run.
“You won’t believe. I found out about Kicsi, Isaac.”
“Yes, by coincidence last year a relative put in a request for nursing care with Jewish Family Services. His niece made the request. He had no children.”
“Can I get her info? To contact him?”
“Mamale, it was hospice care. I’m sure he didn’t last long.”
I swallow. “You sure?”
“Yes, there’s no more contact info for him.”
“Okay, that’s good. That’s really good.”
“What are you talking? Poor man, he suffered a lot, Baruch HaShem.”
That night after dinner, I bring the mail up to my desk. Sorting through I almost miss it, hidden in the sheafs of tree trimmer advertisements, chimney cleaners and grocery store circulars. It slides out, a 3×5 postcard addressed to me, the handwriting immediately recognizable. I turn it around. On the back is a strange simple diagram—a line running… with the source of the electricity back to itself, producing a short. Simply moving the input to output could result in, at best, a blown fuse, or worse a fire, electrocution, death. But above that, a scrawled sideways 8, infinity. I look up to see Michael standing in my doorway, naked except for polka dot boxers, a book in his hand; his body, so perfect and unselfconscious, despite all the markings of minor cuts, missing teeth and dirty fingernails.
“Is that a letter from Grandpa?”
I smile and put my finger to my lips. “Shh…”
Linda Brettler, a child of Holocaust survivors, is an award-winning architect in Los Angeles. She served for many years as an adviser on the television series Mad Men. “Private,” a tribute to her family and the mixed blessings of being “second generation,” is her first published literary work.