A seventeen-year-old crack addict named Beulah Robinson lay strapped to a cot in my second floor bedroom. She'd crawled to my back door earlier that day, mewling. I'd heard a weak scratching on the screen and thought it had been a sick animal; a dog or cat from the alley out back. Beulah was the granddaughter of my neighbors, Fred and Alma Robinson. I'd watched her grow up, a beautiful girl, full of wonder and light. Then the crack dealers got to her and her life plummeted faster and deeper than anyone could imagine.
I wanted to take her to the hospital but she fought me, saying she wouldn't go, that she'd rather die on my floor.
I carried her upstairs, just a bundle of bones, and laid her on the cot.
Tie my wrists, she said. You'll need to tie my wrists and my ankles.
I didn't argue. I cut some strips out of a pillow sheet and bound her to the metal frame. I gave her some water. She closed her eyes and I waited for the inevitable to happen.
I knew they would come for her and I wondered if she had considered that. Whether she had wanted them to come to me? I didn't know.
Beulah passed in and out of consciousness. I fed her chicken soup one sip at a time and waited patiently while she swallowed. It had been six hours since she'd arrived. Her hair had a bright henna rinse and it contrasted garishly with the ghastly pallor of her light skin. Her mother had been a white woman.
Beulah jerked at the straps, writhed in the cot, gnashed her teeth and shrieked. She begged me for money. Begged me to buy her drugs, told me I could have sex with her, called me dirty, foul namesbut I didn't answer. I just wondered how such a fine girl could fall so far and whether she'd find her way back.
Finally, she lay back, exhausted. I hoped she'd find some peace and fall asleep, even for a few minutes.
Just as I was about to leave, she stopped me.
What is it? I asked.
Talk to me, she whispered.
Tell me a story tell me your storypleasedon't go. Ineedyoutotalk to mejust keep talkingdon't stop
I got up to leave the room but again she stopped me.
Don't run out on me now, Mr.Goldman, please. Tell metell me about your lifeso I can forget my own for awhilepleasetell meI got timenot going nowhere
I considered her request. I too had nowhere to go. Everyone who mattered was dead. What else did I have to do?
And so, I began.
KRASNOWIECZ - 1925
One fine day in May, my eight year-old brother, Simmy, staggered home crying, a knife blade sticking out of his left shoulder blade. Simmy collapsed, crumbling to the ground, his pitiful wail piercing my heart.
I burst through the screen door like a maniac. Then I saw the knife and froze, feeling sick and suddenly weak-kneed.
Oh my GodShitshit, I lifted his limp body and half-carried, half-dragged him inside the house.
Katya! Katya! Come quickly!
I heard the thump on the ceiling as Katya dropped the book she was reading and flew down the stairs to the kitchen.
I struggled with his weight. My hands slipped on his blood. Katya ran forward and looped Simmy's good arm around her shoulders. I've got him, she said, then barked, Table.
I looked at the oak table and in one motion swept the heavy ceramic dishes and silver cutlery to the floor.
Between us, we lay Simmy face down on the polished surface.
We need hot water, alcohol, a scissors and bandages, Katya ordered firmly. The blade is stuck in the bone.
I ran toward the medicine closet.
I returned and watched Katya fill a pot and set it on the stove. Simmy moaned. Katya pushed back her sleeves, took some soap and scrubbed her hands. Get me a sponge, she said. I reached. No, not that one. The new one. I found it and handed it to her. She turned to me. You must pull the knife out quickly, she said and the meaning of her words sunk in. I rolled a dishtowel up tightly and forced it between Simmy's teeth.
Bite on it, I said. He took it, whimpering like a wounded puppy.
Katya scissored away the bits of shredded fabric around the wound. I was terrified of hurting Simmy even more but took a deep breath to steady myself. I didn't want to think about slipping or making a mistake. I placed both hands around the wooden hasp of the knife. I could feel the tip of it embedded deep in the bone, speared in the pulpy mass. My fingers trembled. No mistakes, I told myself. I placed my right knee against the edge of the table, braced my body and yanked.
Simmy flopped and twisted and groaned.
The blade pulled free and I tumbled over backwards, arms and legs flung wide. Katya sponged the wound. Here, she beckoned as I got to my feet. Hold this and apply pressure.
Mama, Simmy cried, writhing in pain. Mamamama
Don't worry, Simmy, I said. Katya knows what she is doing. I hoped with all my heart that I was right. After a moment, Katya touched my hand and I lifted the sponge. A slug of blood oozed out.
I need to disinfect, she said looking distracted for a moment. There's some sulfa powder in Mama's room, by the sink, and the thick tape. Go fetch them. I ran off again, scrabbled around in the lavatory adjacent to my parents' room, then brought them to her.
This will sting, Simmy, but not for long. She doused the wound. Simmy yelped, arching his back, flailing his spindly legs.
Mama, he cried again, his skinny body shivering with pain.
Hush, hush, dear Simmy. We're almost done.
Quickly, she rolled out the bandages, cutting a section cleanly. She covered the wound, then held it fast with two bands of tape against his pale skin.
There, she said. It's finished now.
Katya brushed dank hair off his forehead and murmured to him, stroking his cheek. Help me get him up to his room.
We managed to hoist Simmy up the stairs and lay him on his bed. I eased him out of his clothes, then covered him up. He'd passed out.
Katya looked frazzled, her eyes glinting with fear.
The danger will be infection from the knife blade. I think we got it in time, but I can't be totally sure. The next few hours will tell.
I hope you're right, I said.
I am right, she replied.
When Simmy wakes up I'm going to ask him for their names, I told her.
What will you do? she said, worriedly.
Little sister. You leave that to me.
What about Mama and Papa?
I shook my head. We won't tell them. Don't worry, I'll take care of it.
I glanced at Beulah. She listened, eyes half-lidded but awake. I couldn't escape, not yet. Keep talking, Mr.Goldman. Sounds good so far. A real family soap opera. She gave me a faint smile.
Simmy awoke later that evening, his shoulder throbbing. He slurped some soup that Katya insisted on feeding him.
I sat and watched them. You scared me, Simmy. Seeing you like that. I didn't know what to think.
Simmy looked ashen, his face sweaty.
I was scared too, he said, I've lost my spectacles.
He began to cry. Katya stroked his face, shushing him.
I felt in my pants pocket. It's okayI found them. No need to cry. I blew on the lenses, then rubbed them with the bed sheet. Here. They're clean now.
Simmy took them from me, unfolded the wire frames carefully and slipped them on.
Now Katya, you need to leave us alone for a minute.
She glared at me. This is a mistake, Mordecai. No good can come of it.
She stalked out, slamming the door.
When we were alone, Simmy looked at me with a sheepish expression.
Who was it? I asked. Who attacked you?
Let it go. It was nothing.
I spoke quietly and insistently.
Tell me, Simmy. I won't leave until you do. You know I won't.
I knew Simmy would give in. We stared at each other for a good long while until he broke away.
He sighed. Vladimir. Kolya. Ivan, he muttered.
I'll make them pay for what they've done to you, I said. That's a promise.
Simmy stared back at me through the grimy spectacles.
I thought we were friends. Why did they hurt me when I did nothing to them? I don't understand. More tears rolled down his cheeks.
I leaned in and touched my little brother on his good shoulder, then cupped his chin. Jews and Polacks don't mix. It's as simple as that. They went after you instead of me, those bastards. I'll get them back, don't you worry.
It isn't right, Mordecai. Mama and Papa don't like it when you do these things.
I stood up and smiled. That's why they mustn't know, little brother. Revenge is mine saith the Lord.
You twist the Torah for your own purposes. Simmy took his Torah studies seriously. He'd taken to it, enjoyed the stories he read, loved the philosophical discussions. For me, religious school was boring. All the talk made me edgy and restless. I'd rather be doing something, preferably with my hands. Religion was the first ideology Simmy encountered and it influenced him because he was young and didn't know anything else. In many ways, he was an idealist. When he grew older, he became enamoured of Zionism and longed to move to Palestine to build a Jewish homeland.
Get some sleep now. I have things to do, I said and looked at him fondly. You need to rest. He nodded and slunk down under the covers, pulling them up to his chin.
I went downstairs to the kitchen and wolfed some lentil soup, dipping in hunks of black bread. I stared ahead, seeing my fists at work and smiled grimly. It was happening again. Rage bit at me.
I removed my coat and cap from the closet and went out, closing the door after me. I heard a noise and turned. Katya pressed herself against the upstairs window. She banged her palms on the pane, yelling something that I couldn't hear. I turned my back on her, hunched my shoulders and strode away into the darkness.
I marched along, passing no one.
I approached the trestle bridge, walking in the shadows. At Simmy's age, a gang of young Polacks grabbed me and hoisted me over the side by the seat of my pants. They threatened to drop me into the swirling waters of the Volga. The water looked dark and cold and so far down below my dangling feet. Once again, I felt the sting of humiliation. I'd wet my pants and they laughed at me. I heard their jeers echoing in my mind as they hauled me back and dumped me face first in the dirty road. I should have protected Simmy. I should have prevented this from happening.
The storefronts sat silent in Polish town. Gas lamps lit the streets. The deep shadows embraced me. Out of sight, I peered around the corner at Ivan's house. After his dinner, he'd meet up with his friends and they'd wander the town getting into mischief. I waited. After a moment, Ivan emerged. I heard the soft patter of his shoes on the cobblestones and counted the steps under my breath. Fivesixseveneight As the unsuspecting boy drew abreast, I stuck out my foot. He fell forward. Before Ivan could make a sound, I hauled the young Polack up, clapped a hand over his mouth and dragged him into the laneway. I pressed him against the filthy wall.