Fiction: Jenna Blum
JENNA BLUM is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of THOSE WHO SAVE US and THE STORMCHASERS. Jenna is also one of Oprah’s Top Thirty Women Writers. Jenna graduated from the B.U. Creative Writing Masters’ program in 1997. She has taught for Boston University and Grub Street Writers and is currently working on her third novel.
MAX AND JOSEPHINE
The way things used to be, Max would have the mornings entirely to himself. Long before the opening of the clinic’s doors at nine, he would rise to do his calisthenics; then, after bathing and shaving, he would linger over a breakfast of Muesli and coffee, egg and soldiers, newspaper and any recent medical journals that happened to have arrived in the mail. The kitchen, being at the back of the house behind the office, was darker than the rest of the rooms, but at certain months of the year, if Max timed it just right, he would be able to read the paper in a faint rectangle of optimistic sunlight reflected from the walls of the neighboring house. This he would do with one hand on the teapot, his feet in slippers and his spectacles pushed up on his forehead, the kettle whistling softly to itself on the range. Even his daily speculation as to how fast the sun moves, and how one never notices this unless trying to chase a spot of its light, was comforting in its consistency.
But those days are gone now. Max no longer receives medical journals from Berlin, rather perusing whatever tattered back copies he can find on the black market along with his medicine, and the only papers one can buy are Der Sturmer and the Voelkischer Beobachter, neither of which contains the sort of information Max wishes to read. Nor does he have the quiet hiatus of the hours before the day’s work begins; this time of reflection has disappeared as rapidly as the square of sun. Instead, the early morning is filled with the care of the animals, for which Max has created a kennel in the shed attached to the rear of the house. Once a storage unit for the gardening tools and household detritus for which there was no other place—chairs missing legs, boxes of patient records, a battered rolltop desk—this shanty now contains shelves of wire milk crates, and its smell of mildew has been replaced by the marginally more appealing odor of musty hay and animal dung. In the makeshift cages are the dogs and cats that have been given into Max’s safekeeping. There is even an indignant parrot, Hansi, who scolds Max each time he opens the door.
He does so now, murmuring as he moves among his charges with a watering can and scraps from last night’s dinner, refilling bowls and feed dishes. Some of his guests stir and look up, but most of them are too dozy from the sprinkling of sleeping powder Max has mixed into the food to do more than utter a few sleepy barks. Only the dachshund, Spaetzle, is lively; he squirms in delight when Max reaches into his cage, then snaps with yellowed fangs when Max’s hands come too close to his fat, tubular little body. The dachshund is truly a wretched creature, and Max thinks its owner well rid of it. However, Max worries over the kinder-hearted terrier, which seems to be ill; its trusting eyes are fever-bright and is nose, when Max cups it, is hot and dry. Max sighs. The terrier should have penicillin, but Max’s limited supply of the drug, unlike the sleeping powder, must be reserved for human patients, and then only for emergencies. To add to this, one of the cats is hugely pregnant. Ignoring her feral glare, Max gently palpitates her swollen stomach. She might give birth as early as this afternoon. All things considered, it looks as though Max could have a busy day.
The irony of it, though, is that once he has shut and carefully locked the door to the shed—the parrot letting out a feeble squeak of displeasure—Max goes down the hall to his clinic, and this is not busy at all. In fact, during the first hour, not a single person presents himself for treatment. Max sits in his lab coat behind the reception desk; he has had no girl to perform such duties since the decree forbidding Aryans to work for Jews. And really, there is no need for a secretary, since patients these days are so few and far between that Max can keep his records in order with a cursory hour’s work once a week. Therefore Max occupies himself by looking through the old histories, every so often glancing hopefully at the front door. Blumenthal, Heinrich Israel, says the top file; 12 March 1940, jaundice & enlarged liver…. Herr Blumenthal is in Canada now, or so Max assumes. He wonders if the man is actually still alive, and if so whether he has stopped drinking the whiskey that will otherwise shortly kill him. Of course, these days there are so many other and less pleasurable ways for Herr Blumenthal to die.
Max is nearing the bottom of the stack—Rashkin, Esther Sarah, 3 June 1940, miscarriage; Leibowitz, Hannah Sarah, 5 August, fracture of left femur; Epstein, Gerhardt Israel, 5 August, multiple hematomas from severe beating—when the door buzzer sounds. Max hastily shoves the files back into the cabinet and stands fumbling for his glasses. Eventually he locates them atop his head and slides them on, noticing in the process that the broad leaves of the rubber plant in the front window could use a good dusting. In fact, the entire waiting room has a distinct air of neglect. Come in, he calls, and his first patient of the day appears: Frau Schlotsky, who has to turn sideways to push her enormous girth through the door. Max swallows another sigh, for Frau Schlotsky is already behind in her payments. It is obvious that her ration coupons are being spent on items more savory than a bottle of cough expectorant; Max, though admittedly a slender fellow, could use as a belt one of Frau Schlotsky’s mammoth garters. Yet he supposes he should be grateful, since the woman’s hypochondria renders her the sole truly faithful patient Max has left.
And how are you today, Frau Schlotsky? he asks.
The woman glares at him.
What kind of Dummkopf question is that? she wheezes. If I were well, would I be here?
I suppose not, Max admits, holding open the door to the examining office. He flattens himself against the wall to let Frau Schlotsky charge past. Even so, it is a tight squeeze.
Now then, he says, when she has lowered herself onto a protesting wooden chair next to the apothecary cabinet. What seems to be the trouble?
Ach, Frau Schlotsky groans, rolling her eyes to the heavens. Everything is the trouble, that’s what’s the trouble. My joints ache, my back is a misery, and I don’t have to tell you about my stomach! Every night such a gurgling, like a drainpipe, my Werner has to sleep on the couch. I am certain it is a disorder of the bowels. And small wonder, with the food we are forced to eat these days—Max pushes his spectacles more firmly onto the bridge of his nose and regards her sternly over the rims.
And have we been abstaining from sweets, as we discussed last time?
Frau Schlotsky falls back against the chair, which shrieks and then cracks like a gunshot.
Sweets! she huffs. Certainly not, Herr Doktor! I ask you, where would I buy sweets? With a fresh loaf of bread nowhere to be found? A decent pat of butter more valuable than gold? I tell you, just the other day….
Max walks to the sink to lather his hands, the rush of water drowning out the tirade against the long lines for rations, withered parsnips and shrunken potatoes, that invariably accompanies Frau Schlotsky’s visits.
Well then, I suppose we’d best have a peek at you, he says, bracing himself.
When he turns he sees that Frau Schlotsky has already undone her shirtwaist and brassiere.
You had better be thorough, she breathes, leaning against the wall and succumbing wanly to the press of the stethoscope. So as not to overlook anything.
Her breath is a roaring gale in Max’s ears, her heart a powerful engine. As usual, there is nothing wrong with the woman, nothing at all, except that she is several kilos overweight. Flesh ripples from the confines of her muslin undergarments like the lard that is the staple of her diet. Should Frau Schlotsky stop gorging on the cakes and meat pies and God-knows-what-else she is procuring on the black market, Max thinks, she will have an excellent chance of living to see every day of the Thousand Year Reich. That thing is so cold, she gaps. Isn’t there any way you can warm it up?
I’m afraid not, Max murmurs. He straightens and takes a tongue depressor from a jar. In his peripheral vision he catches Heine the Skeleton leering at him from the corner, from beneath the brim of his fedora, as if they are sharing a private joke. Max keeps this hat on Heine’s skull, rakishly tilted a few centimeters over one eye-socket, so as to make Heine appear more friendly to the younger patients.
Frau Schlotsky wriggles as Max applies the depressor.
Have you heard what they are thaying now? she asks from around it.
Frau Schlotsky, please. It is impossible for me to perform my examination properly if you are talking—
They thay that there are doctorth now, in that camp on the hill, Frau Schlotsky says. She spits out the flat stick and bats aside Max’s attempt to reinsert it.
Special SS doctors, she continues in a hoarse whisper, doing experiments up there. Sewing people together. Dissecting prostitutes when they are done with them. Even performing corrective operations on men who are, you know, not right. Queer.
Max takes an inadvertent step back. A match is lit in the pit of his stomach and then just as quickly extinguished. He tries not to look directly at Frau Schlotsky; he removes his penlight, pulls the woman’s lower lids down, and shines it into her eyes.
Have you heard this? Frau Schlotsky persists.
No, says Max. And I am sure it is only a rumor.
Frau Schlotsky wets her lips.
But there must be such goings-on up there, she says. You must have heard something. It’s all right, you can tell me—
No, says Max shortly. I have heard nothing. You may dress now.
Frau Schlotsky looks disappointed. She lifts her skirt to adjust a brown lisle stocking, though Max’s examination has been confined to above the waist.
I hope I haven’t offended you, she says.
Not at all.
Because I didn’t mean to imply that you would traffic with the sort of people who would know about such things firsthand. A decent law-abiding man like yourself would never—What was that?
Max freezes at the sink. From the back of the house comes a weak ah-roooooo!, the sort of sound emitted by a disenchanted dachshund. The horrid dog has apparently disdained its opiate-laced breakfast once again.
Max wrenches on the faucets full-blast.
That is the wind in the chimney, he says loudly over the water. This house is old and quite drafty.
Ah, says Frau Schlotsky, unconvinced.
Perspiring now, Max strides to the apothecary cabinet and selects a bottle from it.
For your ailment, he says.
Frau Schlotsky turns her head away from the door.
What is wrong with me? she asks anxiously.
Malaise, says Max, in dire tones.
Frau Schlotsky snatches the vial from Max and peers at the label.
That is very strong medicine, Max tells her. One dose a day only, at bedtime.
In fact what is in the bottle is sugar-water, which will be well-suited, Max thinks, for her palate.
Ach, says Frau Schlotsky, putting the bottle in her net bag. Malaise. I knew it!
She pushes herself to her feet and starts to leave. At the door she pauses, and Max, who has relaxed a fraction, tenses anew. But Frau Schlotsky asks only, and rather hopefully, This malaise—do you think it’s fatal?
Later that afternoon, as Max is sitting down to his lunch—a heel of bread and some leftover turnip soup thickened with lentils—he hears a quiet persistent knocking. He starts to don his lab coat, which is slung over the back of his chair, and then realizes that the sound comes not from the clinic’s entrance but from the door to the rear garden. Abandoning his meal, he tiptoes down the hall, clothed from head to toe in a singlet of cold sweat. The rapping continues, more determinedly now.
Who is it, Max calls softly.
It’s just me, Max. Open up.
Max pulls the door ajar an inch to see his friend Franz Nussbaum, standing with his cloth cap in his left hand and a lead in the right. The lead is attached at the other end to the collar of a large black creature who, when Max looks down at it, flattens itself on the jamb.
Franz, in the middle of the day?
I’m sorry, Max, says Franz, gripping the cap. I know it isn’t a good time. But we’re leaving tonight—
All of you? You got the papers?
Only Bella and myself, says Franz. He is a small man with prematurely graying hair and new sacks of skin under his eyes that are the same color. He looks even more tired than usual. The children have already gone to relatives in London, he explains. Bella and I are going to try to make it through to Switzerland. Switzerland, Max sighs. He leans against the wall. Through the mountains?
Be careful. I hear they have patrols at the borders now. With dogs.
Yes, Franz says again. And speaking of which…
They both look down at the animal on the lead, which Max sees is indeed a dog. It is the funniest-looking one he has ever encountered, a mutt of some sort with a body as square as a cow’s and skinny little legs like stilts. Tiny flag-like ears stand out from its disproportionately small and triangular head. It stares up at Max, rolling its eyes winsomely so that the whites show.
What is its name? Max asks.
Josephine, says Franz. Like the French singer. The Negress.
Josephine, repeats Max. Hello, Josephine.
He stoops to pet the dog, assuming that it must have a pleasant disposition to compensate for its unfortunate physical attributes. A mistaken theory, as Josephine snarls and snaps at is hand, then squats to urinate on Max’s foot.
Josephine! Franz cries. Bad girl. She’s nervous, he explains to Max. The past couple of weeks have upset her—
Well, then, she’s in keeping with the rest of us, says Max. He holds out his hand, and Franz puts the lead into it.
Thank you, Max, he says. It makes me feel a bit better to think of her here with you. You have such a way with dogs.
Franz crouches and murmurs to the animal, which sits with bovine complacency.
At last he stands.
Max, he says, very low. You should think about coming with us. Leave the animals with one of your Aryan patients and—What Aryan patients? You know better than that, Franzl.
Franz makes an impatient gesture.
You know what I mean. A former one. But you should get out too. You know things here are only going to get worse. Max shrugs.
Perhaps, he says. But I can’t leave the animals. What would they do without me? And I have lived in Weimar all my life. My parents were born here. My grandparents. What is it the Nazis have on the gate of their camp up there? My country, right or wrong. Even so, Franz insists.
Max gives him a small wry smile.
Good luck, my friend, he says. Send me a postcard from Interlaken.
The two men embrace over the dog, which watches them warily, miniscule ears twitching.
Goodbye, girl, says Franz to her, when they detach. He waves at Max and walks away through the back garden. Max stands watching him unlatch the gate and disappear into the gray afternoon beyond it, like smoke. He sighs again.
Well, Josephine, it’s just you and me now, eh? he says to the dog. Come on.
He starts to lead the dog to the shed, but she refuses to budge. Max pulls on the leash with all his might, his face reddening with effort. The dog slides heavily along the ground, growling and baring her teeth; she is more ill-tempered, it seems, than even Spaetzle the dachshund. Halfway to the shed, she again squats to let loose a stream of urine, this time directly on the cuff of Max’s only good pair of trousers.
A month later and the fine fall days have started to turn nasty. The skies are gray over streets restless with skittering brown leaves. They are otherwise deserted. Nobody wants to be out and about these days. The Reich has been handing down edict after edict, and the SS have been enthusiastic in enforcing them. Max can no longer take a tram to the center of the city, which would be a useless venture anyway as he is prohibited from buying anything in the shops there. His radio has been confiscated, along with his bicycle. He wakes one morning to find that a large, slapdash black star has been painted on his door sometime during the night, to warn the Weimarians who don’t already know that he is a Jewish physician. There are rumors that, in any case, his license to practice will soon be revoked.
One afternoon Max is sitting in his gloomy kitchen, sewing a gold star on his coat with the tensile thread he would normally use, if he had any patients, for sutures. His hand is shaking a little from lack of food. His friends on the black market, with whom he attended Gymnasium, have been kind, bringing what they can, but as the invasion of Mother Russia is imminent there are few goods to be had even by such well-connected fellows these days.
The sounding of the clinic’s buzzer is by now so infrequent that when Max hears it he initially doesn’t recognize what it is. He sets his sewing down and tilts his head. The bell is being pressed so adamantly that it is a single burring note, as if somebody is leaning on it, pushing so hard that his finger bends backwards and goes white. Then it cuts out and there is a pounding on the door instead.
At first Max’s desire to run everywhere at once is so strong that he can do nothing but sit still. Then he leaps up and pulls on his doctor’s coat, and rushes into the hall. He is being a fool: of course it is not the SS nor Gestapo; they would not be so mannerly as to ring the bell. And there would be yelling. Juden raus! Alle raus! Yet who among Max’s patients is still left? The Papenbergs? No, they have emigrated to Palestine. The Apelkinds? The Rosenwalds? Max has heard that the Nazis are starting to deport skilled laborers for relocation to the east, and others have been incarcerated in the camp on the hill. Whoever it is, however, is frantic; it must be an emergency of some kind, appendicitis or heart seizure.
Max grabs his black bag from the examining office and yanks open the door.
Why, Josef, he says. What’s the matter?
But little Josef Brun cannot answer. The owlish circles around the boy’s eyes are pronounced against his tubercular white skin, now blotched with hectic color from running. Panting, he clutches at his throat.
Max is alarmed.
Slow down, child, he says. Calm yourself. Tell me what’s wrong. The boy braces his hand on his knees, bending forward.
Deep breaths, says Max. That’s it. Now come in, have a glass of water—
The boy shakes his head and looks up at Max, his lips flecked with spittle.
No time, he gasps. They’re coming.
Max clutches his doctor’s bag to his chest. From within there is a crunch of glass as a handful of syringes snap.
The SS, the boy says. There is to be an Aktion. My father sent me. He said you would know what to do.
Thank you, he says. Now go home, and quickly. Go through the back alleys so they don’t see you. Hide if they do.
He waits until the boy has run off up the street before he shuts the door.
Then he locks it and pulls the blackout curtains and races down the hall to the kitchen. The teapot is in its habitual spot on the shelf. Max sets it on the table and from it takes a small cylindrical object wrapped in greasy brown paper. Within this, although Max has never opened it himself to verify, is a canister of film from the detainment camp on the hill. There is reportedly a photography studio there that the SS use for taking identifying snapshots of the inmates upon their arrival, and somehow the more enterprising political prisoners have managed to get pictures of what transpires in the camp and smuggle the film out. Max doesn’t know what is on it, but he has heard enough to know that Frau Schlotsky’s rumors are not far off the mark: experiments on homosexuals, beatings, shootings, death by lethal injection, piles of corpses left for the rats to feed on. Apparently there is a veritable rat plague at Buchenwald, so bad that the SS, fearing typhus, have called in a special team of exterminators from Berlin.
Max also doesn’t know how the film has gotten from the camp to the baker from whom he gets it. Nor does he want to know. He is but a link in the chain. It is safer this way. But he does know that whenever he buys his bread there is another canister inside it, and he knows where he is supposed to leave the film in event of this kind of situation. He hopes that the SS do not know this as well, for there is a good chance the film in Max’s hand is precisely what they are looking for. Max props his foot up on a chair and slips the parcel into the cuff of his trousers, into which, on the inside, he has sewn a little pocket. The cloth, as he bends close to it, exudes a faint smell of urine. This accomplished, Max removes his Ausweis and Kennkarte from the teapot as well and tucks them into his waistband. The face on the travel pass and identification paper is his, but the name is not. He hurries from the room.
The afternoon is growing dark, the precursor to some miserable November storm, sleet or perhaps snow, which will make Max’s journey less comfortable but easier in terms of not being detected. Max pauses listening in the hallway, head cocked. The SS, unlike civilian Weimarians, have no compunction about making noise. There should be shouting, the crash of boots and the buzz of motorbikes, the deeper rumble of more powerful engines and the grind of truck gears. But there is nothing yet. Perhaps there is still time.
Max stands chewing his bottom lip for a moment; then, making his decision, he seizes his black bag from the floor where he has dropped it and walks down the hall to the shed. His gait is measured now, as if he were merely coming to give the animals their evening meal. He doesn’t wish to alarm them.
So he murmurs to them as usual as he fills their bowls from the watering can he keeps on a nail near the door; by the glare of the bare bulb hanging above the straw-covered floor, he strokes their flanks until they are settled; he talks to them, the new litter of kittens, the still-weak but recovering terrier, the snarling Spaetzle, as he extracts from his bag a hypodermic syringe and fills it from a small brown vial. Unlike the bottle he has given to Frau Schlotsky, this one bears a label marked with a skull-and-crossbones. Hydrocyanic acid, it says. Max holds the syringe up to the light and flicks it, the white half-moon of his fingernail making a tiny clink clink clink against the glass. Then, speaking soothingly all the while, he opens the doors of the cages and injects the cyanide into each animal’s ruff, refilling the syringe as necessary. It takes but a few moments for the poison to work, and it is a quiet death; in fact, if not for the fixed, glazed quality of their eyes, one might think the dogs and cats merely asleep. A much faster, kinder end than the SS would inflict upon them. Edict #1453: Jews must not own pets of any kind. Jews may turn their pets into the Center for Animal Disposal, where they will be destroyed, as they have been contaminated by Jew blood.
Max wrings the parrot’s neck and turns. Josephine. He has forgotten about Josephine. Too large for a cage, she has been left to roam the shed at will, sullying the straw and wedging herself into the far corner at Max’s entrance. At feeding times, she bristles like a porcupine, her black fur standing out in spikes that make her seem even more large and unwieldy than she is. It is only during the past few days that she has learned to trust Max enough to lope awkwardly toward him on her stiff little legs when he enters the shed, to eat without first urinating on it the remains of his own dinner that he sets on the hay.
She watches him now from the corner, her ears flattened and invisible against her head. Then she gets up and trots toward Max, shaking herself. She stops a meter away, then creeps closer and sniffs the trouser leg in which the film is concealed. She presses herself on the ground and rolls one eye up toward Max.
Such a clown, he tells her.
He sits beside her in the hay.
Good girl, Max mutters. His voice is rough. Good girl.
He strokes the triangular skull, so disproportionately small and bony under its fur. The dog settles next to him, pressing against him for warmth and comfort. Max holds her head close to his side, then sinks the needle into the dog’s haunch. She looks up at him with mute reproach and stiffens. Then it is over.
Max exhales and stands up, rubbing a hand over his eyes. It comes away wet. He can hear them now, starting with the houses at the end of the street. He will have to be quick. He hopes it is not too late. He takes a last look at the straw littered with small corpses and one bigger one, then flicks off the light and slips into the back garden, hurrying through the gate toward his destination.
“Max and Josephine” was originally published in The Briar Cliff Review.