(Excerpt #10 from The Ultimate Patient)
The Ultimate Patient — my novel in progress — is a fictionalized account of my family’s history going back three generations. The main characters are based on my parents’ and my wife’s parents’ lives, in war and peace, and the immense social and political upheavals of the 20th century in Europe and later in this country. Tina is one of four major characters in my novel. This excerpt is the continuation of three published earlier and describing Tina’s experience in Transnistria. Being Jewish, she and her family were deported there by the pro-Nazi government of Romania in 1941. One additional excerpt will follow next week. Please let me know what you think. As always, I would love to read your critique.
The Freedmans shared a room with the Flors and the Schultzes, another family of five. Resigned to the fact that they would live there together for a while, they agreed to subdivide the space into three sleeping areas, with a forth, common zone around the place where the stove was supposed to be placed the next day. Since there was no furniture, the demarcation between the areas consisted of their bundles and backpacks set onto the dirt floor along the imaginary boundaries. In discussing their uncertain future, they dared envision a minimum of furniture, starting with, if not beds then at least straw mattresses, along with a washbasin per family, cooking utensils, a table, several chairs and a petrol lamp. They even discussed privacy screens and agreed to share a portion of their meager resources to purchase such items from the villagers, or their landlord, or make them themselves in the landlord’s workshop. The one window of the room was to be split in half by the future screen separating the Freedmans from the Schultzes, such that both families would receive an equal portion of the outside light, while the Flors, being only two, accepted to be relegated to a darker corner.
“In my youth, I did a little carpentry,” boasted Mr. Schultz, eager to instill a drop of normalcy into the dreariness of the afternoon.
“And I am good at sewing,” stated Tina, who felt suddenly animated by the idea of a future. Any future.
It turned out that the Schultzes were from the village of Frumosul, where Rita used to live, and they knew Rita and her parents. It was a small world and Tina, told them about the week she had spent at Rita’s house and orchard a few years ago. “Those were the good times,” Tina sighed philosophically, “although signs of the forthcoming troubles were abundant, if only one paid attention to them.”
The Schultzes were younger than the Flors, or Bronia, and had three boys in their early teens, Chaim, Yitzhak, and David. Chaim was only two years younger than Tina, and once he noticed her he started throwing her glances of an indisputable interest. Given the Schultzes’ age and their connection to Rita and her family, Tina considered them worldly and thought about sharing with them her ideas about communism, but her mother’s tense demeanor prevented it. Tina was finding comfort in being together with others, and as crammed as they were, and as dirty and close to the limit of their endurance, as long as she felt the beating of other hearts next to hers, and especially of those outside of her own family, hope was present. Like explorers and mountain climbers, who were keenly aware of the dangers awaiting them but rarely acting afraid, she decided to ignore or disguise her fears and focus instead on helping and organizing. As for Chaim’s furtive glances, she ignored them, indulgently recognizing that even under the most precarious conditions those budding male instincts manifested themselves as windows into normalcy.
As the conversation dragged on, the men and the boys decided to go out and gather dry leaves and straw, while the women shared the food they had brought in order to come up with some sort of dinner.
The next morning, Illya Petrovici showed up with a register. “I need everybody’s name, age, and marital status. For the census.” When it came to Bebe, he stopped. “Young man, I have news for you. Starting tomorrow at 7 o’clock, you’ll have to report for work. You’ll go to the schoolyard, at the end of our street. They will load you into trucks and take you.”
“Where will they take him?” asked Bronia.
“Well, it varies. The worst are the mines, which are also the farthest away. Those who go to the mines are allowed to return here once a month, and sometimes not even that often.”
“He can’t go,” Bronia said. “He can’t leave us, four women without a man. I won’t let him.”
“I’m very sorry, Ma’am, the rule says that all men ages twenty-one to forty have to go. I only report the information.”
“Well, there must be something we can do,” Bronia insisted.
Illya Petrovici lowered his voice. “Maybe, if you could find some more gold, I could speak to the Romanian administrator.”
“Would he consider money?”
“Romanian money? No Ma’am. Gold is much better.”
“It’s all right, Mama,” Bebe said. “Work didn’t kill anybody, and I’ll be back on the weekends.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Dr. Flor interjected. “Mr. Petrovici, give us a little time to see what we can come up with. Will you?”
“Sure thing,” said Illya and winked happily. “I’ll go to the other rooms and collect their information. That’s what I do — I only report on what people tell me. Like Mr. Schultz over here. He said forty-one and I wrote forty-one. I didn’t ask for his birth certificate. I can’t check everybody.”
When Illya Petrovici returned, Bronia gave him Babtzia’s earrings, wiped clean of marmalade and carefully polished. Illya Petrovici inspected them in the grey light falling through the dusty window. “All right,” he eventually said. “The administrator can be moody, but I hope these will do.” He opened the register and changed Bebe’s age by overwriting 20 over the previously entered number of 26. “Here you go, young man,” he addressed Bebe. “As I said, I ask questions and write down the answers. It’s dark in the room and my vision is no longer what it used to be. If you lie to me, it’s on you, since I have no way of knowing. But I suggest that from now on you keep a low profile, don’t antagonize anybody, and shave often.”
Bebe nodded. Given their living conditions, shaving was complicated. Since they had left Câmpulung, he had not shaved and was sporting a six-day beard, thin locks of brown hair curling along and under his jawline, above his upper lip and on his hollowed cheeks in uneven tufts, more like the effect of dirt and wind on an ancient outdoor statue. Washing had been a major challenge for all of them, their clothing dirty and tattered.
Before Illya Petrovici could depart, the Schultzes barraged him with questions about the readiness of the stove and the availability of a washbasin, eager as they were to heat up well water in order to bathe and do some laundry. Then Tina asked him if there was a way of locating friends and acquaintances who might be elsewhere in the village or in other places in the area. She was particularly interested in finding Iboy, and maybe Hertz and Vertzman.
“Sure thing,” Illya Petrovici said. “Give me the names on a piece of paper and I’ll see what I can do. If not myself, than my friend the Rabbi should be able to locate them.”
Tina changed her mind instantly about Hertz or Vertzman, and wrote down Iboy’s name only — no need to indicate connections tied to her former communist activities. It was safer this way, and if she contacted Iboy, together they would figure out what to do and how to do it, in order to communicate and start organizing.
Illya Petrovici kept his word and installed the stove, and that afternoon, immediately afterwards a healthy fire burned inside the hearth, driving the dampness out of the floor and walls and filling the room with the organic smell of drying rot and mud vapors. They cracked the window open. From afar came the sound of barking dogs, remote voices, wind gusts, and monotonous rain pelting the roof. Slowly the air in the room warmed, and for the first time since they had left their homes they experienced the pleasure of a burning stove, and the sudden comfort elevated the Flors’ contentiousness.
“I should be the one sleeping closer to the stove,” Berta grumbled. “I’m sick, and I’m older.”
“You’re not older than Mrs. Eugenia,” Dr. Flor countered.
“Who’s she?” wondered Berta.
“Babtzia,” said Bebe. “She’s 84, and her spot is at the same distance from the stove as yours.”
“Not true. Hers is closer.”
“Yes,” Bebe said. “By a few inches.”
“ It’s your fault we’re here,” Dr. Flor said. ”I’ll never forgive you”
“Stop blaming me!” Berta exclaimed. “I’m your wife. You should be protecting me.”
“I’m sick of you, that’s what I am,” Dr. Flor said and turned to Larissa. “Let’s step out. Smoke a cigarette.”
Mr. Schultz rolled his eyes.
Larissa donned her woolen cap and followed Dr. Flor through the door.
Tina saw the good in all that. For better or worse, all of them thrown together, were becoming a family.
The following days were dedicated to assigning household chores among the families and to personal hygiene. They took turns heating the water and washing themselves in the one wash basin they managed to borrow from their landlord, while the opposite sex looked away or spent time outside. They met the neighbors from the other three rooms rented out by Illya Petrovici.
Obsessively, Dr. Flor tried to find and purchase tobacco. They all searched for food in the village and in the adjacent fields, where they dug out forgotten potatoes and discovered a patch of frozen peas infested by bugs. “We’ll just boil them and kill off the pests,” suggested Mrs. Schultz.