There are several autobiographical elements to this story, as my longtime readers will note. One that might surprise, though, is that I once did have a run-in with an elderly German named Karl, who would have been right about the correct age for what is depicted herein. Of course, he wasn't what he is here; I can't picture the Karl of my story driving a beat-up 1977 Chevy pickup truck.)
Peter Bernstein put down his fountain pen and stared at the words he had just spent four hours writing. He had resisted the feeling at first, but it had come with increasing certainty until he could no longer deny it: he couldn't finish this story, either. He carefully screwed the cap back onto his pen and placed it in the cup with the rest of his pen collection, and then he put the story in a drawer with all the other ones that he couldn't finish. It was never a case of not knowing how the story should end; it wasn't uncertainty as to what to write next. It was the certainty that what he was writing wasn't any good. Surely he could do better than this. Surely he could write something better than a mere bodice-ripper. But maybe not. How many months since he had finished a story? And how long since that wondrous first sale, which had never been followed by a second?
He glanced at the index card taped on the wall with his credo written on it with his broad-nib Parker Duofold: Nulla dies sine linea. Never a day without lines. But his lines, his writing, never amounted to anything at all. How ironic that he had become a pen collector to have writing instruments equal to his prose -- and now the prose was hardly fit for a disposable ball-point.
Early the next morning Peter got up and went to work. His classes were scheduled so that his teaching day was always done by two thirty, which gave him ample time for office hours and his various other duties. On Tuesdays his first class was at ten thirty, so he looked through a pile of papers from his freshman comp classes. When his mind began to wander, after the third time he read some teenager's outrage that his or her tax dollars were going to keep murderers alive, he got up and walked to the Humanities Lounge to get some coffee. Sitting in the lounge, as always, was Professor Lawrence Tatum of the History Department.
"Peter!" Tatum yelled. He said everything in a near yell. "Find anything over the weekend?" A very large man with a great shock of red hair, Tatum had his day's work spread across one of the lounge tables; the common joke was that his office might just as well be converted to a broom closet
"Nope," Peter replied. "I actually didn't do any shopping this weekend."
Professor Tatum tsked. "You should always be on the lookout, Peter! For all you know, some stranger found a pen that was destined for your pocket."
Peter laughed. Professor Tatum was a voracious collector of antiques of all types, and he had amassed a very valuable collection over the years. He was planning to open his own shop when he retired. In fact, Tatum could have probably opened a shop now; he had some items of great value indeed that would fetch a high price at any auction. He only delayed because he still loved teaching history. Peter had actually met Professor Tatum at one of the local antique dealers, when Peter had been looking at vintage pens. Tatum knew of Peter's pen mania, and he occasionally would acquire an item that would pique his friend's interest.
"Never a day without shopping, young man!" Tatum said with a laugh as he gathered his papers and headed off to class. He knew that Peter was a writer of sorts, and found Peter's credo amusing.
On his way home that afternoon Peter walked through part of downtown, which he did a few times a week; he liked the variety of it, and he liked to observe people to incorporate into his stories. He walked through Chinatown, which was just a two block area with three Chinese restaurants, a Japanese place, and a couple of Asian gift shops. He loved this particular area, and he ate there at least twice a week. Today he stopped with interest at a formerly vacant storefront that had just acquired a new tenant; they had removed the tarpaulins covering the storefront just that morning. To his surprise, it was an antique shop. The front door, one of those heavy wooden doors that rattled threateningly when opened and closed, bore fresh gold lettering that read "Karl Strassheim, Antiquarian." Below these words was a picture of Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god of death, and below that, written in smaller lettering: "By appointment only." Peter peered through the glass in the storefront and saw that this Strassheim dealt in very fine antiques. Peter doubted very much that a place like this would ever be in the price range of an English professor.
Later that evening Peter went to Queequeg's, a coffeehouse in his neighborhood. The owner was a freak for nautical decor, and her favorite novel was, as one might expect, Moby Dick. The walls and ceilings were covered with sea charts, fish nets, lobster cages, harpoons, old photographs of fishermen, and the like. Peter ordered his usual, the "Captain Bligh" (double mocha cappuccino topped with nutmeg) and then took over a booth. He loved to write here, and he pulled out some paper and the fountain pen he was using that week. Since he was currently "between stories", he wrote character sketches of the denizens of the coffeehouse. Most were younger than he, and some were even his students. He wrote about a number of these, describing physical characteristics first and then creating life stories for these people. And then a new arrival, someone he hadn't seen before, caught his eye.
This man was elderly, possibly in his eighties. His thinning white hair was perfectly combed. A pair of rimless spectacles was perched on his slightly red and bulbous nose. He wore a white silk dress shirt under a black pinstriped jacket with a red silk handkerchief folded into the breast pocket. Peter watched the way the man very precisely measured three spoonfuls of cream into his coffee. Then he opened three sugar packets, one at a time, by flipping each one three times before tearing along a crease he folded in the top of each packet. After three sips of coffee, the man produced a leather-backed journal and began to write in it using a pen that Peter recognized even twenty feet away.
He had seem pictures of it in his pen collector's books. It was a Pelikan M-900 Toledo. The black acrylic barrel was encased in a series of engravings in twenty-four karat gold. The manufacture of this pen, by the makers in Hamburg, required almost one hundred steps. Suddenly the vintage Sheaffer in Peter's hand felt very inadequate. Peter was still staring at the gentleman when the gentleman looked up and met Peter's gaze.
Peter shuddered. The man put him in mind of his Uncle Saul, who had traumatized Peter when he'd been a boy and his parents had taken him for monthly visits. Uncle Saul had been a stern man, a cold banker whose home had smelled of antiseptic and was full of things that little boys dare not touch lest they be locked in the cellar with the Beast Beneath the Stairs. Peter had no idea why a complete stranger should remind him of Uncle Saul. He gave a quick smile and then dropped his eyes back to the page again. He put his left hand across his brow, blocking his upward gaze with his fingers as he tried to refocus his attention on his writing and give off the impression of uninterruptible intensity of work. Let's see, where was I....he took a slip of scratch paper and scribbled to restore the flow of ink to his pen.
"Here, try mine," a voice said. The voice was foreign -- Northern European. Not French. Peter looked up and found himself face-to-face with the gentleman from across the room. He was holding out the Pelikan Toledo. He nodded and smiled genially. "You may find the nib to your liking, I think." Not Swedish or Norwegian, either....
"Thanks," Peter stammered as he accepted the pen. It was fairly lightweight, and when he unscrewed the cap and posted it on the opposite end the balance was almost perfect. He touched the silver and gold nib to the paper and wrote a few lines in his miniscule script. The pen left behind a smooth, thin line in sapphire ink. "I prefer black," he said as the man took the seat across from him.
"Chacun a son gout," he replied. He picked up Peter's pen and looked it over. "Very nice," he began, peering at it as a jeweler would a diamond. "The Balance, made by the W.A. Sheaffer Company. Gold and palladium nib. Well preserved indeed; this pen has seen a number of caring owners. But look here: a few hairline cracks in the cap, where the clip is fastened." Age had not diminished this man's visual acuity at all.
"You know fountain pens?" Peter asked as he handed the Pelikan back to its owner and recovered his Sheaffer.
"I know many old things," the man said, waving a hand of dismissal. "There is much business to be done in things that are old."
German! Peter realized. "You're the new antique dealer in town," he said.
"Indeed." The man nodded slightly. "Karl Strassheim. I am new here in town; I lived in the South for a long while, but I regret that my life has come to the point where I need the cold. It reminds me I'm alive. I could not bear to take refuge from the world behind the gates of a sterile community in the bosom of the Tropics. Don't you agree?" He smiled throughout, saying all this in a single unbroken breath.
"Yes," Peter said, momentarily taken aback. He did in fact prefer the colder climes.
"I thought so," Strassheim said. "May I have your name?"
"Ah, Bernstein! Any relation to Leonard?" Peter shook his head. "Pity. I have one of the Maestro's earliest batons in my shop. Tell me, Mr. Bernstein -- may I call you Peter? I do like some informality -- tell me: are you a practicing Jew, or do you merely carry the name?"
Peter's eyes narrowed as he tried to judge this man. "I'm not what you would call religious," he finally said.
"Not many are," Strassheim said. He reached into his jacket, drew out a small brass case, and pulled a business card from the case. He placed the card on the table and wrote something on the back with the Pelikan Toledo. His fingers were long and fine-boned. "I may be able to help you, Mr. Bernstein."
"With faith?" Peter stared at him.
Strassheim raised his eyebrow. "With pens." He handed Peter the card, tipped his hat, and left the coffeehouse. Peter looked at the card. On the left was a gold-ink Anubis, the same design that Peter had seen on the door to Strassheim's shop. Next to Anubis was Strassheim's name and his shop's address in raised purple ink. At the bottom, in red: "We know not for what we seek." Peter turned the card over, to where Strassheim had written: "Monday, precisely 4:00 p.m." His penmanship was perfect and patrician.
Peter didn't go to Temple that weekend, as usual. He only occasionally felt guilty about missing Temple, but this time, in the dark of night when his bedroom was silent and the only light came from the red numbers of his alarm clock, he felt a sense of disapproval that might have been the eye of YHVH.
On Monday he went to work as usual, but all through the day he felt a certain sense of unease about the appointment he had that afternoon. He kept asking himself, Why feel this way about an antique dealer? The feeling became stronger as the day wore on.
Peter arrived at the door to Karl Strassheim's business at precisely 4:00. Apprehension gnawed at his stomach as he entered. Bells hanging from the door rang as he entered and looked around.
The shop was immaculate. Not a single speck of dust could be seen anywhere. The items for sale included perfectly preserved furniture; paintings and tapestries; exquisite clocks and vases. There was a glass case containing jewelry, and another containing first edition books, some with Latin titles on their spines. There were no prices on anything in the store.
"May I help you?"
The voice belonged to Strassheim's executive secretary, a woman in her mid-fifties who sat behind a cherry desk in the far corner. She wore a navy business suit that was at once unblemished and authoritative, and her silver hair was tied in a neat and severe bun. As Peter walked toward the desk he saw that she was doing paperwork. There were sheets of what looked like budget information or sales numbers, but there was no calculator on the desk, and the only computer was a laptop that sat unused on a shelf beside her. She was doing the sums in her head -- very quickly, he saw -- and totaling the columns in neat, precise script. In her hand was a Mont Blanc fountain pen.
"May I help you?" she asked again, peering at Peter over the top of her rimless reading spectacles. A cuckoo clock on the wall signaled the hour. Peter cleared his throat.
"I'm Peter Bernstein," he said. "I have a four o'clock appointment with Mr. Strassheim." He smiled nervously and held out the business card. She didn't take it, or even look at it. She was already looking back down at her work.
"He will be with you momentarily," she said. Nonplused, Peter turned his attention to a chess set that had been carved entirely from volcanic obsidian for the black pieces and walrus tusk ivory for the white pieces, and both materials forming the squares of the board. He leaned in to look closer at the finely carved Staunton pieces and was extending a hand to touch one of them when the secretary spoke again: "Please refrain from handling it unless you are prepared to make an offer for its purchase." Chastised, he snatched his hand back and stood up. He folded his hands behind his back like his father had taught him to do as a boy when they had walked through museums. He glanced at the secretary; she hadn't even lifted her eyes. Her accent was vaguely European, but not strongly so. Canadian, perhaps?
"Make an offer?" he asked. Before she could answer, a door behind her swung open and Karl Strassheim entered the shop.
"Yes, make an offer," he confirmed, giving the same genial smile from several nights before. "None of my items has a specified price. I cater to people who know precisely what they want; they are always willing to set a price that is more than reasonable." He turned to the secretary. "Ms. Kobayashi, please call Governor Nelson and inform him that I cannot divulge the source of the silver. I would not be in business if I did otherwise."
Kobayashi? Peter thought. He remembered reading something about an rich Japanese businessman, founder and president of a prestigious electronics firm, who had tragically died in a hot-air balloon accident. An accident in Quebec....
"Come, Mr. Bernstein, and we shall see if I can interest you in anything." Still smiling, he held open the door as Peter joined him and stepped through. Peter was glad to be out of the company of Mrs. Kobayashi.
They walked down a fairly long hallway which ended at an elevator, one of the old-style elevators that was open mesh on each side. With strength that belied his age Karl Strassheim pulled the gate back, allowing Peter to board. He then got in himself, closed the gate, and moved the huge brass lever that started the apparatus moving with the echoing cacophony of a giant machine operating in a huge cavern. The elevator rose past four floors that looked like stories of a warehouse. Finally it reached the fifth and final floor, where they got off the elevator and walked into what had once been a studio apartment, complete with dramatic skylight thirty feet up. But instead of the bohemian appearance Peter usually associated with studio apartments, here he found a place as perfectly tidy as the shop below, perhaps even more so. Windows along one wall overlooked the street. Two walls were lined with stocked bookshelves, and the last wall bore a number of wall-hangings that looked like medieval tapestries. A shield and spear hung above the mantle of a wood-burning fireplace. By the windows there was an immense desk of black wood, and in the center of the room was a sitting area comprised of a sofa and two chairs of matching leather the color of rich chocolate arranged around a coffee table made of the same wood as the desk.
"This is my office," Strassheim said as he led Peter across the hardwood floor to the desk. "I only bring customers up here when they have needs that require my personal involvement. All respect to Ms. Kobayashi, but there are needs that cannot be serviced by a woman, no?" He gave the genial smile as he sat down behind the desk and looked through a sheaf of papers.
"What needs do I have?" Peter asked.
"What needs indeed?" Strassheim mused. "Please excuse me for one moment. Some business cannot be left undone, yes?" He pulled out the Pelikan Toledo and began writing a note on a piece of fine stationery. Peter glanced at the letter to which Strassheim appeared to be responding; he couldn't quite tell but the letterhead appeared to include the seal of the United Nations. Peter turned away and wandered to the wall with the fireplace. There was a small cabinet that looked like a refrigerator; looking inside he found eight bottles of wine that were being maintained at a cool temperature. He turned his attention to the objects on the mantle. There was a silver candelabra with no candles, and what was unmistakably an Iron Cross hanging from a purple ribbon. There was also a picture of a young soldier in World War II. The soldier was smiling as he held his rifle in one hand and shook the hand of another man, an officer, with the other. The officer was wearing a long overcoat. The ground in the picture was snowy, and the two men in the picture had flecks of snow on them. Behind them was a series of long, low buildings to one side and a set of railroad tracks to the other. An inscription at the bottom of the photograph read something in German, though Peter could see the word "Doktor". It was signed, simply, "Josef".
He was startled by a drawer slamming shut. Turning quickly he saw that Karl Strassheim had left his desk and was walking to the sitting area. "Won't you join me, Mr. Bernstein? We have business."
Peter left the photograph behind and joined Strassheim, who had sat down in one of the chairs. He had opened a bottle of red wine and poured some into two glasses of fine crystal. Peter sat down on the sofa and lifted his glass. The wine was thick and sweet and strong, much more than Peter was used to.
"Never a day without a glass of Port," Strassheim said after he had taken his first sip. Peter glanced at him. Had Strassheim meant to phrase it that way? The antique dealer put his glass down and met Peter's gaze. "I believe in predestination and atonement, Mr. Bernstein. I used to believe in neither. To a young, foolish boy the world can seem to have no purpose at all, perhaps not even to a man such as you. I can state unequivocally, though, that this is false. We are brought to each choice for a reason. Do you understand?"
Peter was startled by Strassheim's intensity. "I'm afraid I don't," he said.
"This is where my choices have brought me. Perhaps it will become clear." Strassheim opened a drawer under the table, pulled something out and set it on the table in front of Peter. "Not the original box, you understand. Some people find that important."
It was a jade box with trim and hinges of gold, about nine inches long, three inches wide, and two inches deep. Peter reached for the clasp and opened the box. The inside of the box was lined with red satin, and on this lining lay a pen.
Peter wasn't sure what he had expected; perhaps a pen of solid gold or platinum, emitting a heavenly glow like that one would expect from the Holy Grail. What he saw, though, was a somewhat ugly pen made of what looked like off-white plastic. It was long and slender and its barrel had been polished to a high luster. The clip was made of gold, and there were no identifying marks as to the manufacturer at all. Gently, Peter picked the pen up. It had a good weight, but was not so heavy that it would tire his hand. He unscrewed the cap, which came off smoothly; the threads were completely unblemished. The nib bore a fine point, which would suit Peter's tiny script well. He turned the pen over in his hand. Upon closer inspection of the pen's opposite end, he saw a blind cap.
"Piston filler?" he asked.
"Yes," Strassheim said. "It has never been inked. That should be done by the user, don't you think? Take it home and test it, Mr. Bernstein. See if you wish to purchase it."
"What if I don't like it?" Peter asked suspiciously.
"I am willing to take that chance," Strassheim said.
"You must use the pen, and then decide what it is worth to you."
"This is very peculiar," Peter said, feeling wary.
"I can appreciate your feelings. The customers I bring up here are unique, and I serve them uniquely. Shall you take it with you?"
Peter looked at the nib again. It was totally plain, with no pretty spiral engravings or markings. The pen itself was plain, very plain. Could he write with this thing, this ornament of mere utility?
He took the pen home with him.
He didn't ink the pen right away; in fact he left it on his desk for several hours. Instead of writing, which he knew he should be doing, he washed his dishes, cleaned his bathroom, sorted his laundry. But he wasn't merely trying to subconsciously avoid writing; he was avoiding that pen. But still it sat there on the desk, and he was constantly aware of it. As midnight drew near his eyes fell on the sign he had taped next to his desk. Nulla dies sine linea.....There was no avoiding it any longer. Peter sat down at the desk and picked up the pen.
He set the cap aside and wound the blind cap until it stopped, fully extending the piston inside the barrel. He opened his inkwell, dipped the nib in the ink, and screwed the blind cap back to its original position. All this took a surprising number of turns; the pen must have had an excellent capacity in its reservoir. When the blind cap was back in position, he primed the pen and then wiped the nib with the old cloth he kept for just that purpose. Somehow the pen now felt heavier, despite the negligible weight of the ink. The pen now had a spark, a vitality it hadn't had before. Peter pulled out three sheets of paper and wrote his standard test phrases: a few lines from The Lord of the Rings and Casablanca.
Perhaps it was only his sense of anticipation just then, the nervous apprehension he had felt all night finally being given physical release. Perhaps. But as he began to write his usual pen-testing phrases the pen seemed to move across the page under its own power, as if it were a living thing that left a perfect line of ink in its wake. His hand danced, and for a moment he actually became unaware of his hand applying pressure to the tip of the pen. His hand danced across the page, and the pen's action on the paper was smoother than any pen he owned, or any he'd ever tried before. Even Strassheim's Pelikan Toledo was a generic ball-point next to the action of this pen. Vintage fountain pens were usually slightly scratchy due to the shaping of the nib by the previous owner's hand, but this one was perfectly smooth, as if it had been shaped for Peter's hand alone.
With a sense of mounting excitement he dug out the short story he was working on just then and started writing. He wrote, enthralled by the pen that was so smooth that Peter became unaware of it; his thought were appearing on the paper in perfect wet lines of ink. He had never written like this before...but then a dark emotion crept into his psyche, and after he had only been writing for an hour when he slowed to a stop and stared at the words, which had excited him so just minutes before but now sat lifeless on the page forming a monument to banality. Here was another story that he would not finish. He capped the pen and set it aside, and then he felt his anger building very quickly, very suddenly. He grabbed the sheets of paper and in the hottest rage he could remember ever feeling he ripped the pages into shreds and threw them into his trashcan. After he had done this, he still felt angry -- perhaps even more so. He yanked open the drawers of his desk and found all of the drafts of unfinished stories he had ever written. One by one he ripped them all to pieces and threw them in the garbage, missing some of the time. Ten minutes of literary self-mutilation later, Peter sat in the midst of a confetti-strewn work environment. He was moderately disgusted not because he had destroyed all of his work, but because he would have to sweep this mess up. Telling himself that he would do it tomorrow, Peter put another sheet of blank paper on the desk and picked up the pen again to do some stream-of-consciousness free writing, an exercise that helped to clear his mind. He cast his idea net, looking for an image to write about -- and there it was. Cattle being loaded onto a train to be taken to the meat-processing plant. He wrote.
They were loaded onto the railroad cars by uniformed men holding guns. There was a lot of screaming in the air and steam in the air belched out by the locomotive. Crying, sobbing, families of cattle being separated. Inside of the railroad car stinks of sweat and shit and piss and it's hot in there, all those bodies crammed in there. Someone was bleeding.
After one o'clock Peter finally went to bed, leaving the pen and the sheet of free-writing ravings on the desk. In his dreams that night he saw blood, death, and a train moving toward an abattoir. He heard the bleating of the cows as the train passed through high fences toward a factory dwarfed by a giant smokestack. Whatever else he dreamed he mercifully did not remember.
The next day, Peter left the College right after his last class and went to Queequeg's to write. Choosing a booth near the back he set out his supplies and reached into his bag for a pen. His heart skipped a beat when he saw the new pen in his bag. He was certain that he'd left it on his desk. Obviously he had grabbed it before he'd left for work that morning, but he couldn't remember. Peter shrugged and wrote with that pen. The feeling that the pen was writing itself was even stronger now than it had been the night before, as if his hand were being pulled across the page.
I am still alive as they push me into the oven. The dead are all around me….The stink of death and decay fills my nostrils. I want to vomit, but my stomach is empty. It has been so long since I ate. I heave and spit up bile. My throat burns as stomach acid pools in the back of my mouth. I swallow it and choke for air, filling my lungs with that stink. I heave again, and the door closes. There is a great metallic slam and the only light comes through the tiny window in the door. And then there is heat. It sears my flesh. It should be over in a second, but it goes on forever. The fires scorch my flesh but I don't die. My eyes catch fire, my ears shrivel and burn. Why won't I die?
Peter's wrist throbbed as it flew across the page. He both winced at the pain and barely noticed it. The images piled in his brain, faster and faster, faster than he could write. Also building was the awareness that he was no longer writing about cows going to the abattoir.
I woke up to shouts in the streets and the snarling of dogs. Through the window I see lights: headlights, flashlights, floodlights that were attached to trucks. I heard car engines, the squeal of brakes, the report of rifle fire. And shouting in a language that will haunt my dreams.
They are here. Footsteps pound the pavement, then up the front steps. Pounding hammering as the front door is smashed into a thousand pieces; the cracking of wood. Oh, my. Oh, my. Here? Here? Now!
More splitting wood. Gunfire, rifles and pistols. And they are in my bedroom now. The one in charge screams at me, yanks me out of bed and shoves me into the living room. Sascha and Helen are already there. I hug them, but we are pushed toward the hallway. Our neighbors are there. The soldiers shove us all down the hall toward the stairs. Why us? Why me?
Before I leave the flat for the last time I look back. Marta isn't with us. She is in her bedroom. Two soldiers hold her down while another laughs and unfastens his belt.
Peter dropped the pen to the table and wiped surprising sweat from his brow. He rubbed his wrists and stared at the words he had written. His breathing was quick, heavy. He blinked, attempting to clear the images from his mind. So grim, unlike anything he'd written before -- modern-day bodice rippers, magical tales of unicorns and elves in Ireland, stories of shopkeepers and their vampire lovers. Never anything like this. Peter rubbed his eyes, and only when he opened them again did he realize how dark it had become in the shop.
"Excuse me, sir?" It was one of the employees, a college-age woman who was wiping the next table. Peter was the only person left in the place, other than the staff. He had been there for nine hours. "We're closing now," she said.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Peter stammered as he hastily grabbed up his belongings and stuffed them into his bag. He stopped when he saw how many sheets he had covered with writing. At his normal pace it took him an hour to produce a whole page; counting these, he realized that he had produced eighteen pages -- almost twice his normal speed. He glanced through those pages of tiny handwriting and saw that he had written of dark things, of death and horror and disfigurement.
Peter stuffed everything into his bag and left the shop. He was thinking about cattle as he stepped into the chilly October air. He certainly wasn't writing about cattle. Not anymore.
Peter disobeyed his Eleventh Commandment for the next two days, writing absolutely nothing. He was too disturbed to go near his desk. He put the pen in its box and put the box in the lowest drawer on his desk. When he finally did write again, he confined himself to the pens that were already in his collection, and he tried valiantly to return to prior subjects for his fiction. Maybe a little Romance would quell the horrible things that haunted his dreams, so he tried that. He took refuge in the familiar. But his dreams were still terrible.
Peter's classes went by that week fairly monotonously. In fact, his whole week was uneventful, and he thought that maybe he was getting back to normal. On Thursday he went for a walk, and before he realized what street he was on he was back in front of Karl Strassheim's shop. There was a note attached to the door: "We shall be unavailable until further notice." The lights were off, but the inventory was still there. Odd.
His walks had been longer than usual that week. Night fell as he headed home at a brisk pace. He wanted to get his heart beating and his blood flowing. He felt pretty good again as he came around the corner onto his own street and walked toward his apartment building. There, under the streetlight out in front of the building, stood a black figure. Probably Francis, Peter thought. Francis was an old coot of a woman who lived somewhere nearby. She always dressed in old rags and wandered around aimlessly, despite the fact that somehow she was actually quite wealthy. He headed for the door and was about to wave when he realized that this wasn't Francis.
The person could easily have been a woman, but somehow Peter was sure it was a man. A sudden breeze came up, and Peter caught a strong scent of burned meat. He pulled the door open and stepped inside the vestibule, certain now that this person was watching him. Relief washed over him when he got into his apartment and locked the door behind him.
He spent his evening writing and watching TV, and forgot all about the strange person. When he awoke at three in the morning with a dry, cottony mouth, he rose from the bed and walked to the kitchen to get a glass of water. As he filled his glass from the faucet, he glanced out the kitchen window to the street and sidewalk below. There, in the middle of the pool of light cast by the streetlamp, the strange person still stood. Peter ducked away from the window, groping for the light switch to shut off the kitchen light. His heart pounded in his throat and his feet rooted to the floor, refusing to move. There was no doubt in his mind at all that the figure in the light had been staring at his window. After several long minutes of waiting and breath-holding, Peter hazarded another glance out the window -- and the black figure was gone. He breathed a sigh of relief and went to his living room. He was now too awake to go back to bed, so he sat down to watch some late night TV and calm his nerves. About ten minutes of infomercials and lousy late-night movies was enough to make him drowsy again….and then a deep booming sound jolted him awake. His windows rattled in sympathetic vibration, and the TV stopped on an episode of "The Honeymooners". It had been the slamming of the building's front door.
Footsteps echoed through the hall outside his door, accompanied by creaking floorboards. Peter's eyes shot to the sliver of hallway light that shone under his door, and he glanced up to make sure that he had, in fact, fastened the deadbolt and his two door-chains. The footsteps came closer, and then two shadows appeared in the light beneath the door and stopped. Peter held his breath and waited for cardiac arrest. While whoever it was stood outside his door, the mail slot flip-flopped and something dropped through to Peter's floor. Whoever it was moved back down the hall. The front door slammed again, and silence descended at last. Peter gradually became aware of the sound of his TV.
Ralph Kramden was about to send Alice to the moon as Peter got up and went to see what had been dropped through his mail slot. It was a white envelope. He picked it up, walked to his desk, and then opened the envelope with a letter-opener.
Inside the envelope was an old photograph. It was a family dressed in dark heavy clothes, standing on the steps of a brownstone building in winter. One member of the family -- the youngest son, who looked to be twelve or thirteen -- was circled in black ink. Peter turned the photograph over, and found writing there: "Write my story." It was signed, "Jakob Stern".
Peter flipped the photograph back over and looked at the family again. Each member wore an armband on which was emblazoned a Star of David.
Peter had been in his office on Saturday for almost five hours when someone knocked on the door. Professor Tatum entered without waiting to be invited.
"Peter! What are you doing here on a Saturday?" His loud voice filled the office.
"I could ask you the same thing, Larry," Peter said as he pushed some books off the only other chair in the office.
"Touche," Tatum said as he settled into the chair. "Yes, I'm spending a rare weekend working. Can you believe the luck? What are you studying there?" He picked up one of the books and stopped smiling when he read the title. "A History of the Holocaust," he said. "A grim topic for you."
"I know. I just figured it was time I learned more. My father refused to talk about it. He said that it should be remembered, but that he couldn't be one of the teachers."
"Is this for a story?"
"I don't know," Peter said. Tatum, of course, saw immediately that there was more on Peter's mind than simple ancestral interest in the Shoah. He lifted an eyebrow.
"Out with it, Peter," Tatum said.
"Well, I suppose it starts with this," Peter said as he held up the new pen. He told Tatum how he had met with Karl Strassheim, and that Strassheim had given him this pen. Peter told him about the horrible things he had written, and the dreams he had been seeing at night. And he told Tatum about the strange man outside his door, and showed him the photograph.
"That is strange indeed," Tatum said as he perused the photograph. "Relatives of yours from the Old World?"
"I don't think so," Peter said. "My great-grandparents came to America a few years after the Civil War. We're pretty much American now. My father isn't very devout -- he married a Methodist -- and as far as I know, I don't have any relatives who were there."
"Meaning you probably do, but you don't know about them," Tatum observed.
"Well, genealogy has never been very important in our family."
"Still, there were six million of them. You must have had blood there somewhere."
Peter shook his head. "But I wouldn't know where to start. I just told you everything I know about the family tree."
"Well, someone is obviously trying to tell you something. Maybe it's a survivor who wants you to tell his story."
"I thought of that, but why me? Why a writer who's never published anything? And why the dreams, and the things I write with this pen?"
Professor Tatum picked the pen up and looked it over. "In Germany, during the war, there was a great deal of fascination with the occult," he mused. He put the pen down, and the two men stared at it.
"Are you saying that Strassheim deals in cursed items?" Peter asked.
Tatum shrugged. "I am no expert in such things, Peter. But it does occur to me that this pen appears to be made of bone."
Peter jolted awake and snapped his head up from the pile of books on his desk. The footsteps in the hall had returned. He sat rigid as the person in the hall moved to his threshold, slid another envelope through the mail-slot, and then walked off, again slamming the door. Peter waited for his heart to move back into his chest cavity before he rose and retrieved the new envelope.
In it was another photograph. This was a series of low buildings to the left and railroad tracks leading to a gate on the right. It could have been a military base, or maybe an industrial park of some sort. On the reverse the same hand as before had written: "Here is where to look." Peter looked at the photograph again. Something there was very familiar. He had seen that photograph, or the place in it, before. In one of the books!
He rushed to the desk and flipped through all of the books in the pile until he found it, knowing now what he was looking for. There it was, the exact same place -- and then his mind jolted to a third photograph of the same place, but with two people smiling in the foreground where the others had no one. The photograph in his hand, the one in the book, and...the framed one above the mantle at Karl Strassheim's office.
Three photographs of Auschwitz.
Peter's sleep that night was consumed with dreams of walking through a lumberyard -- but instead of stacks of lumber there were stacks of bodies which stared at him through sunken eyes.
Peter canceled his classes for the rest of that week and gave his assignments in absentia. He wasn't sleeping; his dreams were tortured by awful things that reach out for you in the dark. He was afraid to write, because he had lost control of what he wrote. When he closed his eyes he saw the camps, the ovens, the trains loaded with people instead of cattle. He slept less than two hours a night, and by the end of the week he was paranoid and edgy. The slightest noise startled him: the creaking floorboards of his upstairs neighbor, the compressors of his refrigerator starting, a child yelling on the sidewalk outside. He did not go near his desk; he was afraid of the books that lay open on the desktop and of the words that he would write on a blank page. He knew already what those words would be: he would write of a body carried into the Doctor's workroom, and of the leg being removed; of the polishing and the turning of the bone on the lathe. He would write of the Doctor pulling the teeth from the mouth and dropping the gold-filled ones into a crucible.
He still went for walks each evening in the early darkness, and the walks became longer and longer. On the third night, Friday night, he walked for hours and hours, barely noticing the increasing pain in his feet. He walked through parts of the town that he hadn't seen in many months and, in some cases, years. It seemed that he was wandering aimlessly, but he gradually realized that he was, in fact, heading somewhere specific. Some force was leading him. The moon was rising when Peter arrived at the Synagogue.
The building was encircled by a wrought iron fence. Peter stood outside that fence looking in at the Synagogue. A voice inside him pushed and tugged him to go in and seek refuge, but another, stronger instinct kept his feet planted where they were.
"You do not go in?"
The voice came from behind Peter, and he turned and saw an elderly man in shabby clothes. He leaned on a wooden crutch which took the place of his left leg. He spoke with a thick accent.
"No," Peter answered.
"You should," the man said. "It is important that one make peace with God. We must all make peace with God, and with a world that contains evil. Why do you think he does it?"
Peter blinked. "Does what?"
"Why does God allow evil?"
Peter had no answer to this. The man shook his head and hobbled away. As he disappeared beyond the streetlight Peter noticed that the man had cast no shadow. He walked home after that, very quickly.
Another envelope awaited him when he got home. There was another photograph, this one of a one-legged teenage boy on crutches. He wore the dirty uniform of an Auschwitz prisoner. The face was young and gaunt, but unmistakable. It was the man from the Synagogue. On the reverse of the photograph was written "Jakob Stern, 1945". Below this was written, "You must write." The word must was underlined twice.
Peter looked at his desk. He did not want to sit down, but he had not written a word in almost a week. The cardboard credo seemed to be openly mocking him. Never a day? he thought. I can't. The phone rang then, and he lethargically picked it up.
"You must write, Mr. Bernstein." The voice of the man at the Synagogue.
"Who is this?" Peter asked, his pulse quickening. He already knew the answer.
"I was Jakob Stern." Pause. "You must write. It is the only way we can be free."
"I am free."
"You are not. You were chosen for this."
"Why?" Peter said. He was sweating now, and urgency had crept into his voice. "Why me? Why was I chosen? What are you doing to me?"
There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. Peter wondered if the person had hung up, but then the voice spoke again. "I did not make the choice."
"Who made it, then?" Peter nearly shouted, his knuckles white as he gripped the phone like one would grip a branch when hanging above a chasm.
"You did." Click.
Peter punched in the re-dial code, but the automated operator merely informed him that the call could not be completed. Peter slammed the phone down and then tried to take his mind off things by immersing himself in daily minutiae. He went through his mail and found a letter from Professor Tatum.
I hope you are feeling better soon. Dr. Jensen taught a few of your classes, but Professor Dallay is becoming nervous. You should call him. [Dallay was Peter's department chair.]
I further hope that this does not seem overly forward of me, but I checked with a friend of mine in Chicago about the business of the photographs. Paul Matthews is a lawyer who has done work with Holocaust survivors and their families. (I did not tell him about the pen. Some things, you will agree, should be kept private.)
From the photographs he was able to identify the family. The came from Tarnow, a town in Poland near Krakow. They were forced into the Krakow ghetto, where the father was shot by German soldiers when he stole a loaf of bread. When the ghetto was liquidated the Sterns were all taken to Auschwitz, one of few families to remain intact after that. There the mother died of typhus. Each of the children, though, was used in experiments that Paul would not describe.
He made one last discovery: the youngest son, Jakob, died in a mass firing squad execution in April 1945, less than one month before the German surrender. Sometime before the execution his left leg had been amputated. It is unknown if this was for medical reasons, but I have my own suspicions.
I look forward to your return to work. The Humanities Lounge this week has been utterly devoid of character.
Peter felt a growing sense of disgust. He removed the pen from the drawer where he had stashed it. There could be no doubt that it was made of bone, Jakob Stern's bone. And the only way out of the madness was for Peter to write with it.
Why me? Why had the story of Jakob Stern had come to an apostate Jew who had no personal connection to the Shoah? Why the story of a boy, completely unremarkable, one of millions dead for no crime? A boy who had left no mark at all on a world that had maimed and killed him?
Why does God allow evil?
Peter picked up the pen, expunged the ink from the reservoir and filled it again, flushing the feeder system and ensuring a clean flow. His heart fluttered as he touched the nib to a sheet of blank white paper, and as before his hand was propelled by a force not its own. And as the first wet lines of ink glistened on the paper, the memories of a life not his flooded into Peter's mind, and he gave himself to them.
He wrote for hours and hours, and the hours and hours stretched into days. He stopped only to eat a few spare meals, sleep a few hours at a time, and to restore the circulation to his aching wrist. Pages piled up higher and higher, and he consumed an entire bottle of ink. He chronicled the days of Jakob Stern, transcribing memories that were not his. He wrote of early days in a small farming town, and he wrote of September 1939 when the German armies plowed through. He wrote of a terrified boy following his crying mother and father and two siblings as they were forced into the ghetto. The pen flew across the pages as if it was telling the story itself and required his hand only for support. The memories continued to come.
The names of songs sung with two other families in a cold, two-room apartment. The soldiers leering at his older sister. The fear of troops coming in the night. The forced labor camps. The train packed with cold, smelly people. Occasionally he had to stop and rewrite passages that were marred by the tears that fell onto the page.
Finally, six days after he started, he put the pen down for the last time. His shoulders slumped, and he leaned forward to lay his head on the desk. A few minutes' sleep would feel wonderful just now….
Peter opened his eyes to find Larry Tatum standing over him prodding his shoulder.
"Larry?" Peter mumbled as he pushed himself upright.
"Thank God you're all right," Tatum said. "We were worried."
"Worried?" What day is this?
"No one has seen you in a week! You weren't answering your phone--"
"I see that. The answering machine, too." He eyed the stack of pages. "My God, have you been writing all this time?"
"Ummm...yes." Peter climbed to his feet, and as he did so he realized how stiff he was as pain shot through his knees and ankles. His bones were moving for the first time in days. Bones? That's pretty funny. He tried to laugh, but his mouth was cottony and his breath stunk in his own mouth. His hair was greasy, he had six days' growth of beard, and he hadn't changed clothes in who knows how long. He was filthy. "I think I'd better shower," he said.
Larry cracked a smile. "I think that would be wise."
"I'll be out in a while," Peter said as he wandered into his bedroom and closed the door. Forty-five minutes later he emerged again, feeling somehow refreshed although still very tired. Professor Tatum looked up at him from the couch, where he had been reading the story of Jakob Stern. His expression was haunted.
"Peter -- this thing you've written--I wouldn't have guessed you had something like this in you."
Peter glanced at the pen, still on the desk. "Maybe I didn't." He grabbed his jacket from a hook on the wall. "Why don't you drive me into the office? I think I'd better meet with Professor Dallay."
"It would be my pleasure," Tatum said as he stood. "We've all been worried, you know." He glanced at the story. "What will you do with it?"
"I don't know," Peter said.
A week later Karl Strassheim's shop was open again, and Peter was there at opening time the very next morning. He walked right up to Ms. Kobayashi.
"I want to see him, and I don't have an appointment."
Even then she didn't look up from her paperwork. Instead she gestured to the door behind her. "He is expecting you." He blinked, and then went through the door to the elevator, which he rode up to the penthouse office. Strassheim was there. He sat at his desk and peered at a diamond necklace through a jeweler's glass. Strassheim removed the glass and smiled at Peter as he approached.
"At last," Strassheim said. "I was beginning to worry."
Peter reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the box with the pen inside. He put it on the desk. "I have decided not to buy this pen," he said.
"Of course," Strassheim said with a shrug. "I didn't expect you to keep it. Not after you realized its nature." He removed the pen to a drawer.
"Its nature," Peter echoed in a tone of disbelief. "You were there, weren't you?" he strode over to the mantle and pointed at the framed photograph. "You were there! Did you see what was done to him? Were you in the room when Herr Doktor took off Jakob Stern's leg?"
"I was." Strassheim shrugged again, but his smile was gone. "Strange thing about war, Mr. Bernstein: the side that is clearly going to lose will not capitulate until it has put guns in the hands of fifteen-year-old boys. But, there is penance to be paid. Some pay it with their lives. Others, though, pay it in different ways." Peter stared at him, and Strassheim sighed. "So, in answer to your question, I was there at Auschwitz. I was there standing guard when the gold fillings were pulled from young Stern's mouth and melted in the crucible. I was there for the amputation. I didn't see him again after that. I suppose he was gassed, or shot; if not, typhus probably got him. All I know is that he never left that place alive.
"It is interesting, Mr. Bernstein: at your college the faces before you change every few months. In a place like that they change every day. Quite a thing for a fifteen-year-old boy, don't you think?"
Peter was suddenly angry. "Don't try to play the victim, Strassheim."
"You should examine your definition of 'victim'," Strassheim said with a sigh. "Especially having never been one." He opened a leather-backed ledger. "Now, we should discuss payment for services rendered."
Peter gaped at the man, not sure if he had heard correctly. "I'm not buying the pen, Strassheim!" he finally said.
"I did not sell you a pen, Mr. Bernstein. I sold you a story, a story you could finish. You didn't come here needing a pen. I serviced your true need, the need you wouldn't acknowledge, and perhaps you won't do so even now. But life is a string of choices, is it not? How is it that your choices have never led you to the words, 'The End'? Until now, that is."
Peter stared at Strassheim for a few moments as the clock ticked the seconds by. Then he nodded, and pulled out his checkbook. He wrote a check, tore it out, and handed it to the dealer. Two hundred and fifty dollars. "One half-cent per word," Peter said. "Fair price for a story that I will never publish."
"A fair price, then," Strassheim said as he slid the check into a folder and wrote the amount in the ledger. "It is most definitely the smallest remuneration I have had in some time. But, no matter; I have other ways of earning money."
Peter turned to leave, but he stopped at the door and turned back to the dealer, who was already onto his next project. "One question, Mr. Strassheim: How could you know my needs, just from seeing me once in a coffeehouse?"
Karl Strassheim looked up from his work and thought the question over. Then he smiled his genial smile and finally said, "German ingenuity."
The answer was somehow satisfying, and Peter left the shop without looking back. When he was outside he headed toward the college for his classes. New stories were already forming in his mind. Not all of them were bodice rippers. Perhaps a few would become novels.
Tomorrow is Saturday, Peter realized. I wonder what time Temple starts.