I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Edek Zepler used to fuck Polish girls. They were mostly maids, and he fucked them, standing up, in the hallways of the buildings in which they worked.
Esther Zepler had learnt this about her father only recently. She sat in her office thinking about her father. She would have liked him to have had finer sensibilities. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to fuck a perfect stranger in a hallway. She understood why the girls did it. It saved them the two zloty annual registration fee they had to pay as an inhabitant of the building.
It was Edek’s job to collect this fee. Before the war, Edek’s father, Esther’s grandfather, had owned several apartment blocks in Lodz. The apartments were occupied by Jewish families and most of the families had a Polish maid. This meant a lot of maids for Esther’s father to fuck in a lot of hallways.
Esther wasn’t even sure how people fucked standing up. She thought that it must be very uncomfortable. Her husband said that this sort of nicking was called a knee trembler. Maybe your knees trembled because you were defying gravity, she thought. She assumed it was the male whose knees trembled.
Esther didn’t learn about her father and the maids from her father. Her son had told her. Her father must have thought it was a manly piece of information to pass on to his grandson, she decided. He certainly never talked to Esther about sex. He did once tell her that her mother, who had died a few years ago, hadn’t liked sex all that much. “It wasn’t important for her,” he had said, proudly. At the time, Esther wondered what he would say if she told him that over the years she had spent thousands of dollars lying on an analyst’s couch trying to be able to feel, among other things, the importance of sex.
It wasn’t that she thought sex was unimportant, it was just that she didn’t think about it very often. She enjoyed it when it happened, but never looked forward to it the way she looked forward to a meal or a holiday.
A friend of hers had once told her that if she went for seven days without sex she felt really frustrated. Esther who had never experienced sexual frustration had been unnerved at this piece of information. For the next six months she had written a large green “S” on the top right hand corner of her diary every time she and her husband had sex. Then she added up the S’s. There had been 26 of them. Just about one for every seven days. Esther had been relieved.
Sex was such a strange thing. Why could you sleep, naked, next to a man night after night, and not think about sex, yet if you were put into bed, naked, with another man, sex would be all that you would think about. His sex. Your sex.
In concentration camps, prisoners didn’t think about sex. Esther knew this from her reading. It made sense to her. Of course you didn’t think of sex when your life was in danger.
She wished she could get the image of her father fucking those Polish maids out of her head. It was making her feel sick.
She looked at her reflection in the glass frame of a Cy Twombly print which was hanging on the wall. She was pleased with her new haircut. At 41, her hair was still thick, although it was on the decline. She had read that women’s hair was at its thickest between the ages of 16 and 35.
Esther and her husband had been living in New York for a year now. Her husband was in the middle of a two-year visiting professorship at New York University. He was a physicist. He worked in nuclear medicine. Esther understood nothing at all about his work. Other people also found this area foggy. A sign above the entrance to the department of Nuclear Medicine had been altered to read ‘Unclear Medicine.’
Esther tidied up her desk. She was the American obituaries reporter for the London Weekly Telegraph. She had inherited the job from another Australian journalist, an old colleague from the Melbourne Age. She had paid him $1,000 for a copy of his New York address book.
The London Weekly Telegraph usually gave her 24 hours notice for an obituary. Obits, they called them. She had to write small essays, from 300 to 1,500 words, depending on the importance of the deceased. The job paid well. Esther was paid $350 for a 1,000 word obit. She wrote two to three obits a week.
It took Esther an average of 30 phone calls to collect the information for an obituary. The essential facts to get about the deceased were date and place of birth, occupation, achievements, a resume of their educational qualifications, their marital status, the number of children they had, and where the children lived.
Often, to assemble the information, Esther had to sort through a tangle of past wives and current wives, and who lived where. Then she had to single out the one achievement that that person would be remembered for.
It wasn’t very hard. By the time she had collected all the information, things fell into place, and the person’s life was as clear to read as a map. Esther often thought how strange it was that a perfect stranger like herself could put a man’s life together from forty to fifty lines of notes.
They were mostly men. In the year she had had the job, the ratio of male to female obits she had written was ten to one. Ten male obits for every female obit. And she knew that it wasn’t that more men were dying.
She took extra care with the women’s obituaries. She wrote 50 to 60 more words than she was asked for. So far not one of them had been cut.
Obituaries were always written in formal, polite language as most newspapers were polite to the dead. But different obituaries could present very different pictures of the same person. By choosing what to emphasize, and who to call for quotes, Esther felt that she shaped the way the dead person was presented to the world.
Writing the obituaries was considered one of the most lowly positions on a newspaper, but Esther was enjoying this job. She found it curiously satisfying tying up the threads of someone’s life. Putting things in order for them, sending them off properly. She wasn’t sure where it was that she was sending them to. She tried not to dwell on that.
Most newspapers had a file of pre-written obituaries. This file was usually called the morgue. Newspaper morgues were full of pre-written obituaries of famous and important people. The pre-written obituaries contained comments, quotes, remembrances, and photographs. When a file needed to be used a new paragraph would be added to the opening.
Esther herself was always on the lookout for important people who were likely to die. When she read newspaper and magazine articles about celebrities and politicians she always noted the state of their health. She built up small biographies of people she thought might die soon.
Esther hadn’t had much to do with death, herself. She hadn’t even seen her own mother dead. She thought that most of the people she wrote about would probably have very elaborate coffins. She imagined them lying in a nest of white satin frills. Perhaps they had a few precious objects in the coffin with them. Medals, photographs, maybe a letter or two. She didn’t know if people were buried with various bits and pieces of their life, or buried on their own.
When Esther was ten, her best friend Caroline’s father had died. Caroline had written a long letter to her father and asked her mother if she could put the letter in the coffin with her father. “Of course you can,” Caroline’s mother had replied, “providing that there isn’t anything in the letter that would upset Dad.” Esther had thought about that for a long time.
She didn’t know much about death and she didn’t know much about funerals. A few years ago, she had met a young man who worked in a funeral parlor. “An important thing to remember in the funeral business,” he had said to her, “is never eat before a funeral. If the deceased is one of those big bastards, and you’ve just had a meal, it’s impossible not to fart when you lift the casket.”
It was a quiet morning, this morning. She hadn’t had one call from the newspaper. She picked up a small book called Facts Of The Holocaust. She had been reading it all week.
Both of her parents had been in Nazi concentration camps. They had been rounded up and imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto before being transported to Auschwitz. From Auschwitz, her mother had been sent to Stuthof, a concentration camp near Gdansk, on the Baltic Sea.
Her mother and father had each been the sole survivors of their families. They had lost their parents, their grandparents, their brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, cousins, nephews, and nieces. They had lost everyone.
Lost everyone. What a strange phrase, Esther thought. Her parents hadn’t lost their families in the way one loses one’s coat or umbrella. These relatives weren’t misplaced. They were gassed, burnt, shot, mutilated, raped and butchered.
On page eighteen she read a quote from Joseph Goebbels, who wrote, in 1929, “Certainly the Jew is a human being. But then the flea is a living thing too—only not a pleasant one. Since the flea is not a pleasant thing, we are not obliged to keep it and let it prosper, but our duty is rather to exterminate it likewise with the Jew.”
Her parents didn’t talk much about their past. They didn’t talk about their lives before the war or during the war. Her mother had told her that the train journey from the Lodz Ghetto to Auschwitz had taken four days. The Jews, old men, young girls, babies, had been jammed into cattle wagons and locked in there with no food or water. She had said that by the time they arrived in Auschwitz more than twenty people in their wagon were dead, and the floor was covered in shit and piss.
Esther knew that her parents had been separated when they arrived in Auschwitz, and that it had taken them eight months to find each other again after the war.
She knew that in Auschwitz her mother had slept in bunks with rats crawling all over her face. She knew that her mother’s eldest sister’s body had swelled up so badly that her skin had burst, leaving deep gashes from which liquid had poured, and that her mother had picked through clots of undigested vomit on the floor and fed them to her sister in an effort to save her.
“You will never know what we went through,” Esther’s mother used to say to her. Esther knew that her mother was right. She would never know.
The phone rang. It was Sonia Kaufman. Esther had known Sonia only slightly, in Melbourne, but here in New York they had seen quite a bit of each other. Sonia and her husband were both lawyers. They worked for one of the biggest New York law firms.
“Hi, Esther,” said Sonia. “Am I interrupting you?”
“No, you’re not” said Esther. “I’m having a slow day. Actually, I’m just sitting here reading.”
“That sounds nice,” said Sonia. “I wish I could sit and read. My office is bedlam at the moment. What are you reading?”
“Oh,” said Esther, “just a small book about the Holocaust.”
“What is wrong with you?” said Sonia. “You sit and write obituaries all day, and then for relaxation you read about the Holocaust. Jesus, why are you so morbid?”
“I’m not morbid,” said Esther. “It may be a morbid subject, but it’s not morbid to read about it. It’s enlightening.”
“It’s morbid,” said Sonia. “I’ve noticed this in other children of survivors. There’s a real morbidity about them. You’re different, you’re only a bit morbid.”
“Thanks very much,” said Esther. “I wouldn’t make rash generalizations about children of survivors if I were you. Generalizations can be dangerous.”
“I’m not making rash generalizations,” said Sonia. “I’ve met five or six children of survivors, and they all, on the whole, look as though they’ve had a blanket thrown over them. They’re so careful, so subdued. Their movements are muffled, they speak slowly in soft voices. It’s as though they have to constantly dampen the life in them. Maybe they’re scared of showing too much life. If they look half-dead, then maybe they feel more connected to the dead and less guilty for being alive.”
“I needn’t have wasted all those years seeing an analyst. I could have just phoned you up and you could have straightened me out,” said Esther.
“Don’t be annoyed,” said Sonia. “I don’t mean to be offensive.”
“Well, you are,” said Esther. “It’s complicated enough having parents who were traumatized and humiliated without having amateur psychologists making superficial diagnosis. You know my mother told me about a woman in her barracks who was forced to have sex with one of the guard dogs for the amusement of the Gestapo. For years, I wondered whether it was really my mother who had been fucked by the dog. I felt so ashamed. I felt awash in the degradation she had suffered.”
There was a silence. Esther felt flushed. She contemplated saying that there was someone at the door and she had to go.
“What in particular about the Holocaust were you reading when I rang?” said Sonia.
“I was reading about the response to the plight of the Jews by the rest of the world,” said Esther.
“No one cared, did they?” said Sonia.
“No one gave a shit,” said Esther. “Roosevelt didn’t give a shit. America could easily have absorbed lots of Jews, but they stuck to their immigration quotas. Australia was willing to take in agricultural workers! You can imagine how many Jews were agricultural workers. There were shiploads of Jewish refugees wandering the seas looking for asylum. The British government issued a White Paper limiting Jewish immigration into Palestine, and the British Navy patrolled the Mediterranean to intercept refugee ships. Chamberlain said that he was worried that if he admitted too many Jews into England they would arouse anti-Semitic feelings. Isn’t that hilarious? You know, in 1944, Eichmann offered to trade one million Jews for ten thousand trucks and some tea. No one was interested. I read a quote from Chaim Weizmann, he was the president of the Zionist Organization during the war. He put it so succinctly, he said that for Jews ‘the world is divided into places where they cannot live and places into which they cannot enter!’”
“Oh God,” said Sonia.
“I’m sorry,” said Esther. “You probably wish you’d never called me.”
“I do feel a bit flat,” said Sonia.
“Are you still having the affair with the guy from your office?” said Esther.
“It’s not an affair,” said Sonia, “we just make love from time to time.”
“That sounds like an affair to me,” said Esther.
“Well, it’s not,” said Sonia. “I spend most of my life with Michael. Michael and I are perfectly happily married. We make love regularly, we shop, we go to the movies, we eat dinner together. Isn’t that what happily married people do?”
“I guess so,” said Esther.
“You know,” said Sonia, “I can’t bear to let Michael suck my nipples or touch my vagina. I let Fred, that’s the guy in the office’s name, touch me and fuck me. After he fucks me, he sucks all the cum out of me. He’s so thorough I don’t need to shower afterwards.”
“Sonia, I think I’d better go,” said Esther. She felt tired. Sonia’s conversation had depressed her. She didn’t want to hear any more details about Sonia and her lover. It sounded sleazy. And Sonia had so high-handedly accused her of being morbid. She would much rather be morbid than sordid, she decided. And Sonia was sordid. To sum up marriage as being a matter of eating, shopping, and sleeping together was so tacky. Esther wasn’t sure why she was friends with Sonia. Probably because she didn’t know many people in New York. When you didn’t have too many friends you couldn’t be too fussy.
She looked at her watch. It was one o’clock. She decided she would go out and get a coffee and buy something for dinner. Maybe she would buy a chicken and make curried chicken in yogurt. She hadn’t made that for ages.
A grey-haired man of about 65 was in the lift. He was carrying a large plastic bag. Esther had seen him before. “I’m going to visit my daughter,” he said to Esther. “She’s just moved to New Jersey. I’m going to do what she does when she visits me, I’m going to take my laundry with me.” Esther wasn’t sure whether he was being funny or not. She smiled at him.
Outside, it was snowing. Esther felt as excited as a child when she saw the snow. She stood for a moment just looking at it. Big fat snowflakes flew in all directions. The air was flecked with snow. Parked cars were already blanketed in a white coat of snow. The snow looked soft. And warm. As though it was a protective and cozy cover.
The tops of all the buildings had disappeared into the sky. Everything looked village-like. Manhattan could have been pre-war Poland or Russia.
No matter which way Esther held her umbrella the snow flakes swirled around and flapped into her face. Around her people were smiling. The snow seemed to have raised everyone’s spirits.
In the supermarket, Esther picked out the plumpest kosher chicken. She liked to buy kosher chickens. She thought that they were much less likely to carry all those new diseases that chickens were rumored to carry.
Life had become very complicated, she thought. When she was a child you just bought a chicken and that was that. You didn’t have to wear gloves when you washed it and make sure that you had cooked all the pink out of it before you ate it. Nobody worried about their chicken carrying salmonella or some other virus. Even people didn’t get many viruses. Now, young men and women had genital warts and fungal and yeast infections, and her own contemporaries suffered this syndrome and that syndrome. She suddenly felt old.
She waited in the check-out queue. They seemed to be having trouble with the cash register. She moved to another queue. That queue didn’t seem to be moving either. “You’ve changed the devil for the witch,” an elderly black woman said to her.
Esther nodded at her. She wondered what the woman meant. Was the devil worse than the witch or the witch worse than the devil? Or were they both bad? Was it a similar phrase to the one about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire? Of course, that must be it. She smiled at the woman.
Finally, it was Esther’s turn. She paid for the chicken and left. The snow had slowed down. A few smaller, finer flakes were, quite langorously, spotting the air. Esther walked towards the office.
Fourteenth Street was closed to traffic. A blue barricade with a sign, ‘LICE LINE DO NOT CROSS,’ was in the middle of the street She looked at the sign carefully, and then laughed. It was a police barricade. The PO had been painted out.
She had been reading about lice this morning. In Auschwitz, the lice used to emerge from the prisoners’ bodies so swollen with blood that if you touched them they burst.
A young couple were standing near the barricade, kissing. They were very young. About 16. They were kissing very intensely. Esther thought that they were too young to open their mouths so widely to each other.
Esther walked on. Two orthodox Jews were walking briskly up Second Avenue. Esther was still surprised at how many Jews there were in New York. She looked at the two men and nodded. They ignored her. She realized that to them, she wasn’t anyone special, she wasn’t one of the fold, one of their own. To them, she was just another Jew.
The phone was ringing when she got back to the office. She picked it up. It was her editor, calling from London. “Okay, Esther,” he said. “We’ve had an anonymous tip that Alistair Champion, the American tin-mining magnate, is dead or dying. Or it could be his son, Alistair Champion Jr., who is dead or dying. We don’t know if either of them is dead, and if they are, which one of them it is. Can you find out?”
Esther went to work. Alistair Champion Jr. managed the English rock group, Spin. She looked up the number of the agency that represented Spin in Manhattan.
“I want to get in touch with Alistair Champion,” she said to the young woman who answered the phone.
“You can reach him through the record company in Los Angeles,” the young woman said, “but I happen to know he’s out of the country.”
There was something in the slow, hesitant way she’d said “he’s out of the country” and the slightly conspiratorial, in-the-know tone she had used when she’d said, “I happen to know,” that alerted Esther. It was not the sort of tone she would have used if Alistair Champion Jr. had been out on the road, touring with the band.
“I actually want to make contact with his father, Alistair Champion Sr.,” Esther said. There was a long pause.
“Oh, well,” the young woman said slowly.
Esther knew that she was on to something. If there had been nothing wrong, the young woman would have just told her that their office had nothing to do with Alistair Champion Sr.
“Alistair Champion is with his father, is he?” she said.
“Yes, he’s in England with him,” the young woman replied.
“He’s in the hospital with him now, is he?” said Esther.
“Yes,” she said.
“What hospital is he in?” said Esther.
The young woman suddenly stiffened. Esther could hear that she was worried that she had already revealed too much. “If you want to contact Alistair Champion, you could send a fax here and we will fax it through to him,” she said.
“Thank you,” said Esther.
She rang her editor. “I’ve found out that Alistair Champion Sr. is sick in hospital somewhere in England. His son is with him,” she said. “I don’t know which hospital he’s in, and I don’t know how sick he is, but I’d guess pretty sick.”
Two hours later, her editor rang her back. “Go, ahead,” he said, “write the obit.” Esther rolled up her sleeves. She got out her rolodex, and began preparing to put Alistair Champion’s life in order.
for Petrushka Enge Maria Owen
Lily Brett is an Australian writer now living in New York. “Unclear Medicine” is the first chapter of a novel in progress. Two books of fiction and three volumes of her poetry have been published. Unintended Consequences, her fourth volume of poetry, will be out this month in Australia.
Li Young Lee