After twenty years, Abel Gittle finally figured out a proper response to his life. It was April of 1968. Abel went to bed on a Wednesday night, said goodnight to his wife, Sarah, then woke up Thursday morning, committed to eternal silence.
“Abel, you want one egg or two?” Sarah asked.
Abel sat in the kitchen in his underwear and soft cotton slippers at the Formica table with the chrome legs and the rose motif. He lifted his bony right arm and with two fingers held aloft, signaled his answer. Then he contentedly watched as Sarah busied herself preparing their breakfast, a task she had been doing since they were married, twenty years now, last October. By Abel’s quick calculation, that made it 246 months. “Weeks and days I’ll figure out later,” he thought.
“You want soft or hard?”
Abel waffled his arm in the air as if to indicate he didn’t much care either way. He watched Sarah’s thin legs sticking out below the hem of her house dress like translucent pipe cleaners. “Thin legs. We all have such thin legs,” he thought.
“Cat got your tongue, Mister?” Sarah asked. “Meantime, ‘stead of sitting, you could set the table.”
Abel stood and shuffled to the cabinet to get the two dishes, to the drawer to get the knives and forks, to the other cabinet to get the glasses for the tea. “Makes it 1,066 weeks this Wednesday,” Abel silently calculated. He carefully laid out the dishes and utensils before sitting to watch Sarah make the breakfast.
He enjoyed watching her because in Sarah he saw the freedom he could never feel. Sarah never made the same movement twice, yet the breakfast was always the same. Abel never did anything new, yet nothing ever seemed to work out well. She threw things together and could build a car. He would work methodically, diligently and make a mess.
“Those are not the dairy dishes,” Sarah said with the annoyance of a parent who has just explained to her child for the hundredth time why she keeps two sets of dishes. He benignly sat watching as she made the switch in the dishes.
“It may not be important for you, the dishes, but to me they’re important. Now, toast?” she asked.
Abel nodded in agreement.
“Look, you gonna say something today, or can I take the hearing aids out from mine ears?”
Abel smiled and shrugged.
“Abel, you are starting to make me crazy. Now, one piece toast or two and if you put up your fingers to tell me, you can make your own toast.”
Abel stood, got four pieces of Grossinger’s seeded rye from the package and put them in the toaster. Then he sat again and smiled at a worried-looking Sarah.
“Abel, you okay?” she asked.
Abel nodded and smiled.
Sarah shut the flame under the eggs, then came and sat at the table. She wiped and re-wiped her hands on her apron, then she stroked his face and hair. She put her hand to his brow to check for fever, then rolled down his eyelids to check for something, he didn’t know what.
She looked intently into his face. Abel had seen this look on Sarah’s face only a few times before, this look of grief and fear, and he was sorry to see it now. He hadn’t meant to cause her this pain, but he felt it was time for him to act.
When Abel got off the ship in 1948 he walked down the gangplank and into the first store he saw, a small, dilapidated hole in the wall selling notions, thread and thimbles. Sarah stood resolutely but glumly behind the counter, her thin arms folded across her flat chest, her pasty complexion in relief against the age-darkened walls behind her. Abel sensed he had found the right place.
Sarah peered intently into Abel’s face, then ran her eyes up and down his emaciated body. He stared a moment at her, then put down his cord-bound cardboard suitcase. Without a word, Sarah went into the back of the store. Abel sat and waited, hearing her bang around dishes and cups and whatnot. Finally, she emerged with a plate of sardines and tomatoes with a piece of black bread and a glass of tea.
“From where?” she asked.
“Lemberg,” Abel answered between bites of sardines and sips of hot tea.
“Warsaw,” Sarah countered.
“Nice,” Abel said. “I visited a few times.”
After pouring some tea, Sarah again disappeared into the back of the store. When she came out a few minutes later, Abel could see she had combed her hair and changed her dress. He liked how her hair was now pulled into a bun with the comb pushed into it to keep it in place. There was some rouge now on her cheeks and a touch of lipstick.
“So, you liked Warsaw?” she asked.
Sarah waited. She knew these things took time. She had been in New York two years now. In Warsaw she had twenty girls working under her in the shoe factory, so a shop this size she could manage. Eating, sleeping, being with people, these would come later.
“You have a place?” she asked.
Sarah took a piece of paper, found a pencil and wrote a name and address. She gave it to Abel.
“Call him. A man also from Lemberg. Here maybe a year.”
Abel looked at the paper, but never stopped eating. He didn’t recognize the name.
“You sure Lemberg?” he asked.
“Absolutely. No question.” Sarah paused to watch Abel methodically chew the food, sip the tea. Each bite, each sip savored.
“In Lemberg, you had work?”
“I was an actor.”
“Couldn’t be you were an actor.” Sarah pulled up a stool and sat opposite Abel.
“Could be and was.” Abel carefully wiped his mouth. “Why couldn’t I be an actor?”
“Actors talk. They speak words. You been in mine shop now an hour you ain’t said more than six syllables.”
Abel stood himself up on his spindly legs and walked carefully to the center of the shop. The two weeks at sea had left him a bit wobbly in the knees, but now that he had eaten the best meal he had had in those weeks, he felt the strength and the necessity to rise to the challenge.
Abel cleared his throat and began. “My life is over and done with,” he said with a precision and cadence found only in a theatrically trained voice. “I’m gifted, intelligent, courageous. If I’d lived a normal life, I might have turned out as a Schopenhauer, a Dostoevsky. I’m talking so much nonsense. I’m going out of my mind. Matushka, I’ve lost heart and soul.” Abel stopped, cleared his throat again and retook his seat.
“Those are the words you want to tell me?”
“Those are my words.”
Sarah’s reaction was to collect the plate, the cutlery, the glass and napkin and take them all into the back of the store. Abel waited.
Soon, she returned to say, “Those weren’t your words.”
“How do you know?”
“Look, Mister. You come into mine store and I right away give you food, sardines, bread, a glass of tea. And now you insult me.”
“How insult you?”
“I told you I am from Warsaw. I am not one of those shtetel peasants. I am a sophisticated lady. And I saw Uncle Vanya on the stage more than you gave performances of him. I know mine Chekhov. So don’t give me with the ‘how do you know.’ I know plenty, Mister.”
“I’ll bet you do. So, know why I came into this shop?”
“Me neither. But must have been a reason. Luck like this I never had before.”
“You mean with women.”
“I mean with life. So, more tea?”
Abel and Sarah were married nearly twenty years when their son Aaron died. He was eighteen. Six months after the diagnosis of lymphoma he was dead and Abel and Sarah had to buy a burial plot and a coffin.
As they lay awake at night, unable to face not thinking about their son, unwilling to let his image go even for sleep, Abel and Sarah tried to work it out.
“You’ll excuse me,” Abel said, “but reminds me of the camp.”
“You’re crazy,” Sarah said in a rush, hoping to ward off a digging into their past lives.
“I’m crazy? Maybe. No. I agree, I’m crazy. But want to know how? Want to know why?”
“Okay, scholar. How, why like the camps?”
“Because it don’t make no sense,” Abel yelled. He could feel his blood. Sarah could hear his heart. “It was like that, right? You remember. No sense. Me, him, them, today, tomorrow, the day after, eat, don’t eat, drink, don’t drink, shit, don’t shit, don’t never make no difference because it never made any sense. Words, words, words, no words could ever make it make sense.” By now Abel was out of bed rushing around the room, his rail-like legs shuffling quickly over the wall-to-wall carpet, his skinny arms pumping into the air, flailing the air around him, spittle forming at the corners of his mouth. “No sense, no rhyme, no reason.”
Sarah lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. For twenty years they had a pact: there would be no talk of the camps, only silence. Whenever the subject surfaced, in movies, in books, on TV, in the news, Abel and Sarah lived up to the rules of their unspoken agreement and made no acknowledgment that any of that had ever meant anything to them. They could have been listening to stories about Mars or Jupiter for all the reaction they would have. Until now.
“Never made sense, never fair,” Abel went on. “All the time there, never saw anything I could understand. It was like walking around in a room pitch black run by crazy men without hearts or brains. Now this, this…. We talk to doctors who talk to doctors who talk to doctors, but nobody can tell us why a boy doesn’t yet shave gets this and six months later is dead. I’ll tell you, Sarah, this place is scarier than that place. Know why? I said…”
Sarah had to make up her mind. Did she really want to know why or did she want Abel to stop or did she want to run from the room.
“No, Abel,” she sighed, “I don’t know why. Tell me.”
Abel leaned over her, his face not more than inches from her. She kept her eyes closed, but she smelled the anger on his breath.
“There they said nothing and they killed. Here they talk, they talk and talk and they lie and they don’t know nothing and you die anyway. There there was no hope so you knew what was going to happen. Here there is first hope and then your brains are beaten out. There we counted the days we stayed alive. Here we count the days until we die and then we figure the days, the weeks, the months, the years since someone died and we light a candle. There was better. Each day when we counted we knew we had lasted one more day.”
Sarah moved slowly out of bed. It was two in the morning. It was two weeks past the shiva, but since time didn’t measure her feelings, that didn’t mean much to Sarah. Mostly she moved slowly because of the arthritis in her hips and knees. And Abel, of course. To keep Abel company. Abel the actor who not only hadn’t acted in the past twenty years, he had barely moved off the couch in twenty years, couldn’t for a lot of reasons. First off, his anger weighed more than he did. Despite all of Sarah pushing food, Abel weighed the same now as he did when he got off the boat. “Where you going?” he asked.
“What you care?” Sarah said as she pushed on toward the door.
Abel was dumbfounded. “What I care? I care. I care plenty.”
Sarah brushed past him. “Fah. You care. Fah.”
“How can you say I don’t care?”
“You care, you don’t speak to me that way. You don’t tell me what happened to Aaron is worse than the camps. You don’t speak to me like that.”
“No, you sad old man. I don’t disagree. You are right. You are dead right. This is worse.” Sarah trembled with emotion. “That’s why you have some nerve speaking to me like that.”
It was that night Abel decided he had spoken enough. It was right after he figured it was 7,462 days.