Authors: John Katzenbach
Copyright Š John Katzenbach 1995
No novel ever gets finished without some assistance. Sometimes this help is technical, as in the readers who review early drafts of the manuscript and point out all the mistakes one has made. Sometimes it is less tangible, but equally important. (The children who leave you alone when they’d much rather you came out and shot baskets with them.) To complete this book, I was greatly aided by my friends Jack Rosenthal, David Kaplan and Janet Rifkin, Harley and Sherry Tropin, all of whom contributed comments that improved the final version.
There are many extraordinary books about the Holocaust, each more heartbreaking, more frustrating, more astonishing than the next. I do not intend to list all that I examined, but there is one work that I think worth mentioning. When I first started to nurture the seeds of ideas that ultimately became this novel, the late Howard Simons at Harvard University gave me his copy of a remarkable work of nonfiction: The Last Jews In Berlin by Leonard Gross. Those interested in learning about true resourcefulness and bravery would be wise to examine it.
As always, my greatest debt is to my family, so it is to Justine, Nick, and Maddy that this book is dedicated.
Early in the evening on what promised to be an oppressively hot midsummer night on Miami Beach, Simon Winter, an old man who had spent years in the profession of death, decided it was time to kill himself. Regretting for an instant that he would be creating a messy job of work for others, he walked slowly to a closet in his bedroom and removed a scarred short-barreled .38 caliber detective’s special from a faded and sweat-stained brown leather holster. He cracked the cylinder open and removed five of the six bullets, which he slipped into his pocket; this act, he believed, would help remove anyone’s doubts as to what his intentions had been.
Carrying the pistol in his hand, he started to search for paper and pen to write a suicide note. This took several frustrating minutes, and it was not until he shoved aside some white, pressed handkerchiefs, tie bars, and cufflinks in a bureau drawer, that he was able to discover a single clean sheet of blue-lined notepaper and a cheap ballpoint pen. Well, he told himself, whatever you’re going to say, you’ll have to keep it short.
He tried to think if there was anything else he needed, as he paused momentarily by the mirror to inspect his appearance. Not too bad. His checked sports shirt was
clean, as were his khaki trousers, socks and underwear. He considered shaving, rubbing the back of the hand that held the gun across his cheek, feeling the day’s stubble, but decided that it was unnecessary. He needed a haircut, but shrugged as he hastily combed his fingers through his shock of white hair. No time, he told himself. He suddenly remembered being told when he was young that people’s hair continued to grow after death. Hair and fingernails. He wished it were true. This was the sort of information that was whispered from one child to another with absolute authority and invariably led to ghost stories told in darkened rooms in hushed tones: Part of the problem with growing up and getting old, Simon Winter thought, was having the myths of childhood erased.
Turning away from the mirror, he took a quick glance around the bedroom - the bed was made, there were no piles of dirty clothes in the corner; his midnight reading, paperback crime novels and adventure stories, was stacked by the bedside table - and he thought, if not precisely neat, it was at least presentable, which was more or less the same as his own appearance. Certainly no mess that wasn’t understandable for an old bachelor, or, for that matter, a young child, which was an observation that momentarily interested him and gave him an abrupt sense of completeness.
He stuck his head into the bathroom, saw a vial of sleeping pills, briefly considered using them instead of his old service revolver, but decided that would be a cowardly way of murdering himself. He spoke inwardly: You should be brave enough to look down the barrel of your gun, not merely pop a handful of pills and ooze gently into a fatal sleep. He moved into the kitchen. There were a day’s worth of dirty dishes in the sink. As he stared at them, a large bronze palmetto bug crawled up on the edge of a
plate and paused, as if waiting to see what Simon Winter would do. .
‘Disgusting beasts,’ he said out loud. ‘Glorified cockroach.’ He raised the pistol and took aim at the bug. Bang,’ he said. ‘One shot. Did you know, bug, I never received less than an expert rating?’
This made him sigh deeply and smile as he put his gun and paper down on the cheap, white linoleum countertop, grabbed some dishwashing soap and quickly started scrubbing the dishes. He talked out loud: ‘Let’s hope that cleanliness is next to godliness.’ He supposed that it was slightly ridiculous to do the dishes as one of his final acts on earth, but then, if he didn’t, he knew someone else would have to take care of them. This, he understood, was a part of his nature. He did not leave things undone for other people to finish.
The palmetto bug seemed to catch a whiff of the soap, recognized it was in mortal danger, and fled across the counter, as Simon Winter took a halfhearted swipe at it with a sponge.
‘That’s right. You can run, but you can’t hide.’
He reached beneath the sink and found a can of insect poison, which he shook hard and then sprayed in the general area where the bug had disappeared.
‘I guess we’ll go together, bug,’ he said. He remembered that ancient Vikings used to kill a dog and place it at the feet of a man about to be buried, the thought being that the warrior would want companionship on the road to Valhalla, and what better comrade than a faithful dog, who presumably would ignore the fact that its own life had been cut short by barbaric custom. So, Simon Winter thought, if I had a dog, I could shoot him first, but I don’t and I wouldn’t do that anyway, so my companion on the road to wherever will have to be a palmetto bug.
He laughed at himself, wondering what he and the palmetto bug would talk about and guessing that in an odd way, their lives hadn’t been that different, poking around in the unpleasant remains of day-to-day life. He swiped the sink clean with a nourish, put the sponge down on the corner, and, taking up the paper and pistol, went back into the modest living room of his small apartment. He sat down on a threadbare couch and placed his revolver on a coffee table in front of him. Then he took the notepaper and pen and, after a moment’s thought, wrote:
To Whom It May Concern:
I did this to myself.
I am old and tired and lonely and haven’t done anything useful in years. I don’t think the world will miss me much.
Well, he said to himself, that’s all true, but the world seems to get along pretty well regardless of who it is that dies, so you haven’t really said anything. He placed the tip of the ballpoint pen against his teeth and tapped it once or twice. Say what you mean, Simon Winter insisted, like ah elementary school teacher frustrated with her students’ compositions. He scribbled quickly:
I feel like a guest that has overstayed his welcome.
That’s better, he thought. He smiled. Now, get on to business.
I have slightly more than $5,000 in a savings account at First Federal, part of which should be used to pay to fry up these old bones. If someone would be kind enough to take my ashes and throw them in the waters
off Government Cut on an outgoing tide, I would appreciate it.
Simon Winter paused, and thought: It would be nice if they did this when the big schools of tarpon that live in the cut start to roll on the surface, grunting, gulping air, and picking up speed as they get ready to feed on the pinfish and small mackerel. They are beautiful animals, huge silver scales like armor on their flanks making them seem like medieval knights-errant of the sea, with great, powerful, scythe-like tails that thrust them through the water. They are an ancient tribe, untouched by any evolutionary change in centuries, and some of them are probably as old as I am. He wondered for a moment whether a tarpon ever grew tired of swimming, and if it did, what it did then. Perhaps it just slows, and doesn’t run as hard when a big hammerhead stalks the school. He thought: It wouldn’t be half bad to come back as a tarpon. Then he continued writing:
Any money left over should go to the Miami Beach Police Department’s widows’ fund, or whatever it’s called nowadays. No relatives to call. I had a brother, but he died, and I haven’t heard from his kids in years.
I have enjoyed life and managed to do a few good things. If anyone’s interested, there’s a scrapbook with some clippings about my old cases in the bedroom.
He decided to allow himself a small conceit and an apology:
Once, I was as good as they came. Sorry to be such a bother.
He paused, examining the note, then he signed it with a flourish:
Simon Winter. Detective. Retired.
He took a deep breath and raised his hand up to his eyes. It was steady. He glanced down at the handwriting in front of him. Not a waver there, he thought. All right. You’ve faced far tougher things. There’s no reason to wait anymore.
He gripped the gun, placing his finger on the trigger. He could feel every part of every action, as if, suddenly, each motion took on a specialness of its own. The tension in his finger around the trigger tightened the tendon in the back of his hand. He could feel his arm muscle working as he lifted the pistol, strengthening his wrist to hold the weapon still. His heartbeat accelerated. His imagination flooded with memories. He ordered his eyes shut, trying to squeeze out any residual doubt. All right, he said to himself. All right. It’s time.
Simon Winter placed the barrel of his revolver against the roof of his mouth, and wondered whether he would feel the shot that killed him. And in that short hesitation, that single, momentary delay, the silence he’d created around him was abruptly shattered by a loud and insistent knock at the front door of his apartment.
The sound crashed through his suicidal determination, startling him.
In that same instant, he became aware of dozens of small sensations, as if the world had abruptly demanded he acknowledge its presence. The pressure in his finger on the trigger seemed to threaten to slice his skin; where he had expected a quick sheet of scorching oblivion, now he tasted the metallic harshness of the revolver barrel and
choked on the oily, pungent smell of the cleaning fluids that he had used on the weapon. His tongue slid up against the smooth icy steel of the trigger guard and he could hear the wheeze of his breath.
Farther in the distance the diesel engine of a bus droned past. He wondered if it was the A-30, heading to Ocean Drive, or the A-42, on its way to Collins Avenue. A trapped housefly buzzed frantically at a window, and he remembered an unfixed tear in one of the window screens. He opened his eyes and lowered the pistol.
There was a second knocking at the door, more demanding.
The noise had an urgency that overcame his resolve. He put the revolver down on the coffee table, on top of his note, and rose.
He heard a voice saying: ‘Please, Mr Winter…’
It was high-pitched and frightened and seemed familiar.
It’s after dark, he told himself. No one has knocked on my door after the sun’s gone down in twenty years. Moving swiftly, forgetting for a moment the hesitation that age forced onto his limbs, he hurried to the sound. He called out, ‘I’m here, I’m here …’ and he opened the door, not knowing precisely what it was that he was opening to, but vaguely hoping in some distant spot within him that he was allowing something of importance to enter.
Fear like a halo of light seemed to illuminate the elderly woman standing outside. Her face was rigid, pale, drawn tight like a knot, and she looked up at Simon Winter with such helplessness that for a moment he stepped back, as if struck by a sudden strong gust of wind, and it took an instant for him to recognize his neighbor of almost ten years.
“Mrs Millstein, what is the matter?’
The woman reached out her hand, grasping at Simon Winter’s arm, shaking her head, as if to say that she could not force words past fright. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Mr Winter,’ the woman said slowly, the words creaking past lips squeezed together, ‘thank goodness you were home. I’m so alone, and I didn’t know what to do …’ ‘Come inside, come inside. Please, what is the matter?’ Sophie Millstein stepped forward shakily. Her fingernails sliced into the flesh of Simon Winter’s arm, her grip like a climber threatened with a fall down some sheer precipice.
‘I didn’t believe, Mr Winter,’ Sophie Millstein started softly. But then her words picked up speed, following in a torrent of anxiety. ‘I don’t think any of us really believed. It seemed so.distant. So impossible. How could he be here? Here? No, it just seemed too crazy, so none of us believed. Not the rabbi or Mr Silver or Frieda Kroner. But we were wrong, Mr Winter. He is here. I saw him, today. Tonight. Right outside the ice cream store on the Lincoln Road Mall. I stepped out, and there he was. He just looked at me, Mr Winter, and I knew right then. He has eyes like razors, Mr Winter. I didn’t know what to do. Leo would have known. He would have said, “Sophie. We must call someone,” and he would have had the number right there, ready. But Leo’s gone and I’m all alone and he’s here.’