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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ONE LAST CHANCE
By David Macpherson 

 

 

 

 

 

Edward Richter stood in the heat at the metal scrap yard.  Sweat dampened the prominent folds of fat on his chest.  He might have sold the gun for a handsome amount.  No, much better to remove it forever from human hands.  To place the Lugar in a car about to be crushed cost him fifty dollars and a favor from his high school friend, the yard owner.  Without emotion, the monstrous iron machine first flattened the vehicle top to bottom then compressed it front to back and side to side.  Edward’s thoughts drowned out the whine of the hydraulics and shrieks of grinding metal.  The yard owner grasped the car’s remains in enormous pincers and placed it among a stack of twenty similar lumps of auto corpses.   The cube’s metal surface showed random recognizable car parts like abstract art.  The weapon lay hidden in its metallic grave soon to be melted, the freed molecules scattered into something new, something better.

#

In the summer of the year before, an old man flanked by his wife and daughter, Edward’s first appointments of the day, sat alone in the waiting room near the airport ticketing atrium.  Notices on the gray cinder block walls shouted annoying (Cell Phone Use is Prohibited-TURN IT OFF!) or grave (No Guns, Knives or Other Weapons Permitted on Federal Property) warnings.   Edward had reviewed the couple’s application a few minutes earlier.  Nothing worrisome – a 96-year-old Polish immigrant and his wife – perhaps a last visit to the old country.  This man might be his oldest among the clients seeking a global entry card that would allow him to skip the long lines in immigration and customs when he returned to the US. 

As Edward walked up the hallway to the waiting room, the old man leaned forward in the chair.  He held a wooden cane with both hands in front like the start position for a nonagenarian hundred-yard dash. Neat thin laces secured shined black shoes to his feet.  Strands of thin white hair draped over his black coat collar.   His wife sat next to him.  Her mouth sucked in rhythm like an infant – Edward guessed little went on in her brain.  The other woman, younger and heavier in comparison, but still gray, scrolled a cell phone.  Edward might chastise her for breaking the posted rule.

To a waiting room empty except for these three, he announced their names, “Zbigniew and Ruth Dudek.”

The middle-aged woman raised her hand.   “We’re here.”  She rose first and leaned to the old man’s right ear.  “Come on, Dad.”    He turned to Edward.  Dudek’s eyes widened as if he recognized someone he did not want to see.  

Strange.  Edward did not know this man and sensed no risk – even if Dudek considered harm toward others, age made him impotent. 

Without instruction, Dudek followed him into the interview room.   The old woman’s sucking rhythm accelerated as her daughter escorted her behind the patriarch.

In the interview room, the couple sat in front of his desk.  He allowed no more than two clients in his small office but the daughter held the residual brains.  She stood behind them.

He began the usual spiel.  “You’re here to be interviewed for a global entry card, correct?”

The old man said nothing.  He leaned forward and rolled up his sleeve to his forearm.   Edward recognized the six-digit tattoo of a Holocaust survivor.  

The daughter leaned over her mother and pushed her father’s sleeve down.  “He doesn’t need to see that, Dad.”  She handed Edward her parents’ passports.  “I’m their daughter, Mary Olson.  I applied for them online.”

Edward sensed Dudek’s hostile eyes.  He had dealt with angry customers after he rejected the application, not before.   Dudek’s wife made random wet popping noises.

Edward’s non-traditional interview style led to two types of responses, hate and delight--never indifference.  Once every few months, his supervisors, an ever-changing group of bureaucrats, offered feedback from angry customers.  “He told me crazy stories.”  “How could you hire a nut to do security checks?”  “He talked so much while he entered my data, I’m sure he made mistakes.”  Edward didn’t quibble with the first two comments-both accurate to a point.  But, he never made data entry mistakes.  His ability to talk on one subject and type on another took years to perfect.  In security, he had to judge to perfection.  One miss out of the thousands he interviewed would result in a catastrophic public failure.
 
Fluent in three languages, Italian, German, and English, he let the German inflections loose at work.  His accent put some off.  “Why is a foreigner working in US security?”  He could hide his Deutsch roots if he chose but the language’s rhythm and force reminded him of his father.

During interviews he hinted at his agnosticism.  “Who knows what our purpose is?  Maybe God, if She exists?”  The innocent showed uncertain smiles, surprised that such a topic be raised.  But a religious zealot might stare in anger or even counter his assertion. He poked at government.  “I am part of the huge bureaucracy – I hate it, but they pay well.”  Too much of a smirk or too enthusiastic agreement might lead to further exploration.  He tried to tap into each client’s emotions at least once during the interview.  Distraction allowed the true character to escape.

Edward turned to his computer screen.  Just move through – Dukek wasn’t going to engage in distracting conversation. An hourglass appeared on his monitor. He waited for the program to load.   Silence sometimes uncovered deceit, but Edward’s armpits felt moist from the old man’s stare.  Why did this old Pole worry him?  He did not suspect terrorism.  Something else.  End the awkward silence – engage the daughter.  

“Will you be traveling with them?”

She was ready to talk.  “Oh, yes.  They can’t travel on their own.  I already have a global entry card.  My father is a Holocaust survivor – Bełżec prisoner camp.  He met my mother in the US in the fifties.  He insists on going back to Poland once before he dies.  We have relatives there to stay with--cousins. They live in…”

The forms finally loaded.  He stopped her droning story and finished processing them in ten minutes.  The old man never said another word but continued to stare at Edward.  Though the air conditioning worked well on this August day, Edward wiped his brow after they left.


In December, the old man returned.  Edward found him waiting outside the locked entrance thirty minutes before opening time.  His application had gone through – no reason for him to be there.  He stood by the entrance in a gray raincoat and black hat leaning on his cane like he might have stood there overnight.  “Show you something.”
  
Edward unlocked the door to the waiting area.  “What is it?”

Dudek carried a scuffed leather briefcase with scratched metal corners.  He placed it on the floor and tipped it flat with his cane.  The briefcase struck the floor with a loud shot that echoed in the airport atrium.   Edward flinched.  A TSA agent in the atrium glanced at them, then away.  Dudek pointed with his cane for Edward to open it. 

“No, let’s go inside.”  Edward struggled to bend over to pick up the briefcase.  He grasped the handle and lifted it to Dudek.  The old man grunted something. Edward guessed “thanks” in Yiddish but wasn’t sure. 

In his office Edward moved the five pictures of his children, three daughters and two sons, to make room for the briefcase.   The old man’s eyes followed each face.  He placed his cane in the corner and leaned forward to click open the briefcase.   Edward had been searching his brain for the man’s name – it popped into his head - Zbigniew Dudek – strong name. 

Dudek shuffled through papers in the briefcase.  “Ah.”   He pulled a photograph from the briefcase and laid it in front of Edward.  A small black and white photo showed four people, a prison guard and three prisoners.  They wore the garb of German concentration camp inmates, dirty gray shirts with a single triangle patch.  They stood on mud. All in the photograph attempted smiles but their faces did not brighten the scene.   The blurred background of the photo revealed nothing.  Mr. Dudek reached across the desk and retrieved a pen from Edward’s penholder and pointed at the guard’s face.
 
Edward stiffened at his own face, though thinner, in the photograph. 

Like a prosecutor, Dudek pointed the pen at Edward.  “You, yes?”

Edward was not alive when this picture was taken seventy years ago. But the prison guard’s reluctant smile was his own.  He knew who he might be. 

“No, not me.  When was this taken?”

“Bełżec camp—1942.”

“I was born in 1955.”

“Ja, ja.  Not you.  Father?”

“No, not my father.”

“Why not?”

“My father was born in 1932.  He would have been ten years old in the photograph.”

“Your father from Germany?”

“Yes.” Edward’s father had emigrated from Germany after World War II with his mother.

“His father?”

Edward had the same thought. His mother had told him his grandfather was a farmer and had died in World War II.  Nothing more.   No good could come of this.  “I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

A small lie might resolve it forever.  “My grandfather left Germany in 1935.”

The old man looked hard at him. “You are sure?”

“Yes.  I’ve got to get ready for my next appointments.”

Dudek pointed to one of the other figures in the photo, a gaunt teenager with dirty pants and no shoes.  “Me.”     Dudek grabbed Edward’s arm and shook it.  “See?   Me.”

“Yes.”

“Others dead.  Shot in head.  I saw.”

What could he say?  “I’m glad you survived.”

Dudek stared at the picture.  “Fucking Nazi.  He was animal.”  He spit into the wastebasket and looked up at Edward as he wiped his mouth with a gray handkerchief.   “Nazi looks just like you.”

“I have customers waiting.  You really must go.”

“Ja, ja.  I go.  You want copy of picture?”

Edward wanted a copy but this would imply too much.  “No, thank you.”

He followed the old man out.  The waiting room remained empty.  As Dudek walked through the entrance door he turned back and propped his cane to stop the door from closing.  He sneered at Edward.  “Yah, many customers waiting.”  Dudek released the door.  It shut and latched.  Though the wired glass, Edward watched him shuffle away.

Two weeks later, the airport atrium, when Edward arrived at 7:30 AM, bustled with lines of travelers. An airline computer system had crashed causing long lines of tense adults and whining children.  A terrorist seeking maximum carnage would choose to detonate now.  As he unlocked the waiting room door, he sensed eyes on him.   He turned around to look at the lines but saw nothing suspicious.  Each day when he arrived, he left the entry door unlocked for the first customers.  Today, he locked it behind him—for reasons he did not understand, he needed more security. 
But nothing happened – a false alarm.

February that year hinted no clue of spring.  Weeks of dense clouds obscured the daylight’s lengthening.  Edward read the Saturday newspaper at the small wooden table in front of a sliding glass door that opened to a balcony in his apartment.  A gray teak chair covered with old snow obscured his view of other apartments in his complex.  Edward read the obituaries every day.  The section started with one or two longer stories about locals who had died.  How did the editor decide whose life merits a more detailed summary?  The locally famous made the cut but often the accomplishments seemed weak.  Somebody has to fill the space.  Edward predicted he would not make the cut above the small-font capsules of life.  He would be beloved by his daughters and sons.  The newspaper would struggle to write much more.

Edward’s scanning stopped at Dudek’s obituary.  Despite being a Holocaust survivor, he rated small font.  But, the obituary was lengthy with the names of many who predeceased him including four brothers.   He was beloved by a long list of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  His wife had died in January.  Edward must have missed her obituary or they chose not to publish one – nothing to write about a homemaker who died demented.   Dudek’s survival in the war and his subsequent career operating a shoe repair shop filled out the rest of his story of resilience.  He had repaired shoes so that no one would suffer the months of wet feet he had in Bełżec.  Even the strongest succumb – the funeral would be on Sunday.

After Edward had seen his grandfather’s face as a prison guard, he had worked to determine its accuracy. Edward’s father, an only child, had died in 1965 and his mother in 1980.  Edward and his sister were the only remaining family.  He told his sister about the photograph.  “A farmer who died in the war. That’s all I know,” she said.
  
He had contacted a few Nazi hunter organizations.  They focused on living Nazis – Edward’s grandfather, Gustav Richter, had to be dead – he would be 115 now.  The third organization agreed to do the search.  They called back in two hours.  A prison guard named Gustav Richter served at Bełżec.   He was killed when the prisoners were freed.  Gustav Richter was a common name but the physical resemblance was too great – Edward’s grandfather had been a Holocaust concentration camp guard.  

Edward read the weather forecast, heavy snow predicted.  His usual Sunday drive into the hills and ravines of western Pennsylvania now would be misery.  Should he attend the funeral?  He did not owe this man or his family anything. Edward abhorred Nazism both for the monstrous acts and for the stains set for centuries on the Germans who followed.  But he had nothing better to do, and perhaps the funeral ceremony would end his ruminations about inheritance of personality traits.
Edward stamped his black shoes to remove the snow and salt and shuffled to enter Temple Emanuel.  A hand grabbed his arm and pulled him to the side – the grandson of a Nazi caught at the temple so soon?   Edward turned to face a clean-shaven middle-aged man with a kind face presenting him with a yarmulke.   He placed it on his head.  The usher helped him position it.  His intent to stay inconspicuous already had failed. 

He sat alone in the second to last row.  Most of the other rows were filled.  Edward understood little of the prayers and none of the Hebrew during the ceremony. The rabbi’s eulogy made him think more about his dark ancestry.  He regretted his decision to attend.  At the end, the congregation heard details of the Shiva. 

Dudek’s daughter caught his eye as she processed past him.  She leaned to him.  “Please come to Shiva.”

On his drive home, Edward decided he would not accept her invitation – just let this die with Dudek.  But, she never left his mind for the next two days. Why would she want to talk?   Perhaps his grandfather had not been as evil as Dudek stated?  Some redemption?   He would attend his first Shiva.
 
Dudek’s home, a 1960s ranch, half covered in yellow brick, stood on a hill in a subdivision with curved streets.    A winter sun in a cloudless sky did not chase away the frigid, still air.  Edward imagined many children playing in these streets in the past.  Today, no sleds or other toys decorated the driveways.  Old people watching daytime TV sat in these neat little houses.

Edward climbed the seven concrete steps to the front door.  Rock salt crunched under his shoes.  Dudek’s daughter opened the door before he rang the doorbell.

She smiled at him.  “I’m so glad you came.  Please come in.”

Plastic covered the entryway floor.  She took his coat and introduced herself.  “I doubt you remember my name.  I’m Mary Olson.  My maiden name was Dudek.”

“Edward Richter,” he said shaking her hand.  He stuttered on “Richter”.  “Should I remove my shoes?”

“Yes, please.  The salt destroys the carpet.” 

Edward grunted as he untied his laces – should have worn the loafers.

She led him into the living room, small but neat with beige shag carpeting. Edward hadn’t been shoeless in someone else’s home in many years.  He worried about foot odor.  The closed front curtains hid the sunlight from the room.  Three candles burned without scent on tables in corners of the room.  

His eyes adjusted. Hundreds of pictures on every flat surface in the room emerged like stars at night.  Their faces began to judge him.

She motioned him to a low couch.  “Can I bring you something to eat?  We still have cookies and some fruit left.”
“No, thank you.”  Idiot.  He should have brought something.  He never was any good at these things.

“How about some coffee or tea?  I’d be happy to make a fresh pot.”

He foresaw an urgent need to urinate in her home.  “No, I’m fine.”

Mary sat in a chair next to the couch.   She smoothed her skirt.   “My father showed me the picture of your grandfather.  That was your grandfather, right?”

Edward would not lie again.  “Yes.”

She waited for more. 

“I don’t know much about him.  Actually, I knew nothing of him until I saw that picture.  I knew only he died in the war.”

“My father was shocked to see your grandfather’s face on you.  It’s a remarkable resemblance.”

“But you must understand it’s only a physical resemblance.  I am not a Nazi and abhor the Holocaust.”

“Of course.  I never thought you would be. I can see how upsetting it might be to learn of your grandfather’s past.”

Either she was a saint or there was more.  He spoke the words he had rehearsed.  “Though I did not know my grandfather, I would like to apologize to you and your family.”  Weak.  Never enough.

She reached forward and touched his knee.  “You don’t need to apologize for a man you never knew.   I want to show you something.”  She walked to the hallway. 

Waiting for her to return, Edward sat surrounded by the photographs of Dudek’s life – large family reunions and the shoe repair store.  Even as a young man after the war, Dudek appeared old.

She returned with a small black case and set it down on the couch next to him.  “I don’t want to alarm you, but this is my father’s gun.”  She opened the case.  It contained a Luger pistol.  Edward’s heart pounded.  Why did she want him to see this?  “After he died, I removed all the ammunition.”  Not just a relic – loaded recently.

Edward shifted his weight.  “Did he ever use it?”   He wished he could take it back – what if he committed suicide?

“He never did for which I am so glad.”

“Not even for target practice?”

“No, but I must tell you something.”   She dropped her head and leaned forward holding her hands as if she would pray.  “He planned to shoot you.”

The room seemed to darken in the silence that followed.  The many faces of Dudek and his family witnessed this confession in the flickering candlelight.

“He only told me this a few days before he died.  He told me to apologize to you.  He got all the way to the airport.  He said he watched you open your office door.  But, he changed his mind.”

Edward returned to that unsettling morning.  The gun that almost killed him now lay still before him. 
He needed to hear more.  “What changed his mind?”

“He said he imagined killing Nazis his whole life.  He never searched for any – he worried he would follow through.  But he knew he would die soon, and he came across you.  After my mother died, he thought he had nothing left to lose.”

Edward shivered understanding how close he had come.

“What stopped him?”

“He saw the pictures on your desk.  When he imagined your children’s faces at your funeral, he couldn’t go on.  He said the bitterness should die with him.”

Surrounded by the still faces of Dudek’s life flickering in the candlelight, Edward stared at the gun.
“He wanted you to have it.” 

His eyes asked why.

“He said it would be safe with you.”

 

 

 

About the Author:

david

David Macpherson is a retired internal medicine physician living on a small farm in western Pennsylvania.  He retired in 2016 as a Professor of Medicine from the University of Pittsburgh and as a Chief Medical Officer for the Veterans Health Administration serving as the lead physician in a mid-Atlantic region.  He is proud to have focused his medical efforts on US veterans.  He is married and has two adult children who serve as part of his network of reviewers who critique and help to improve his writing.  Most of the time, his family’s thoughts on his writing are correct—but not always.  Dr. Macpherson’s interest in writing fiction dates to the mid 1970’s.  During his medical career, he accumulated near thousands of excuses why not to sit and write fiction.  Since retirement, almost all of these excuses have vanished and he has drafted more than fifteen short stories and several flash fiction pieces under consideration.  In addition to numerous scientific publications, he has published two nonfiction pieces online in the Pittsburgh Quarterly and two short stories published in Scarlet Leaf Review and Adelaide Literary Magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

     
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