Masthead | Contributors | Submissions | Archives | Subscribe

 

Fiction

Minor Inconveniences

by Eric Nusbaum

Landau walks in the middle of the street. Every night he finds himself more impressed by the quietness of the ghetto. Such a disorderly place, and now so silent. As silent as the salon where he will drink his cognac later. As silent as the Jew who is painting the beautiful fresco on his son’s bedroom wall. Landau turns one corner and then another.  The sidewalks are empty of everything but dust and trash and the placid bodies that will be hauled away before sunrise. They are a monument to Landau’s efforts. Darkened windows and unlit streetlamps line up before him in austere reverence.  Muffled torches before a conquering Roman general.

Landau catches the glint of one of his medals reflecting in a shiny aluminum garbage can. He lingers to examine the small fragment of himself: posture perfect at the waste, sleeve falling easily over the wrist. An officer, thoroughly. But the reverie is interrupted by a shuffling sound. It comes on vaguely but scratches at Landau like an unfinished task. The sound comes from no place in particular. Somewhere in the middle distance, beyond the nearby buildings but certainly still inside the ghetto walls. Landau strides to the middle of a nearby intersection and peers in all four directions. The night is cloudless and the moon is nearly full. Nothing suspicious. Nothing at all. Perhaps a typhus-stricken Jew is stifling a cough inside one of the tenements.

But the sound grows louder, steadier, and nearer. The scratching becomes a shuffling and the shuffling becomes increasingly dense. A patrol, Landau finally realizes. Just a routine patrol. He makes out the pounding of leather boots over loose cobblestones echoing in perfect time through the still air. The sound fills his chest like and expands like the warmth from a strong drink. As the patrol comes closer, Landau can hear the faint whisper of the troops’ collective breath, the unified inhale and unified exhale. He adjusts his own breathing to match theirs. He stands perfectly still and shuts his eyes in order to better relish the steadiness of all that surrounds him, of everything.

The figure appears, fully formed, when Landau opens his eyes. A fat, two-legged thing, the figure hesitates and then ducks swiftly into a doorway. For a moment, Landau remains in the intersection. He blinks once. He hears the patrol marching on, their footfalls fading into the distance. The street neither trembles nor pulsates and the dark mass remains still in the doorway.

“I know you’re there,” Landau says. He removes his pistol from his holster but does not raise it. “Come forward, please.”

Landau wonders why the Jew has not moved. Perhaps he holds some silly hope of going unnoticed or forgotten. Perhaps he is too afraid. At least, the Jew does move. He ambles toward the intersection without lifting his feet. The scraping of the Jew’s ragged shoes and the pitiful slump of his shoulders are nearly enough to provoke second thoughts. Sighing, Landau raises the Lugar and trains it on the figure. But the Jew takes off running, sprinting even, the way an egg might roll down a hill in loping and uneven strides, all the while screaming gibberish into the darkness. Landau jogs a few steps after him.  He sets his feet into a wide stance.

The gunshot hangs in the air like humidity. The fat man accelerates briefly and after a few lurching stumbles collapses face-first onto the street. Nothing stirs in the apartments. No lights turn on.

Landau looks down at the shadowed face, fleshy. The jowls are still soft and heavy, splayed out on the cobbles. Soon they will harden. These are the jowls of the dentist, Landau realizes. Karl Gunther had been raving for months about this dentist – had called him a Jewish miracle, a smile-straightening and pain-numbing child of Moses. Gunther had even taken to lending the Jew’s services out to higher-ranking officers and colleagues, though never Landau, in exchange for other professional favors. A mistake to shoot him, Landau thinks, but unavoidable. Gunther will find another dentist. His teeth are beyond repair anyway.

***

Landau stands before the blossoming fresco. Castles and horses and knights, but none of the fairytale silliness that could so easily prove ruinous. Fierce animals rendered in wistful but determined brushstrokes. He marvels at the Jew’s classical sensibility and unlikely imagination. The work evokes Germany’s greatness in a way that is fit for a child but somehow not childish.

“I’m not a little girl,” says a young voice.

The boy imitates his father’s posture by standing cross-armed next to him, but unlike his father, he is sniffling.  A few tears dance down his cheek. Landau shakes his head.

“Then why do you cry like one?”

“The princess. There is a princess on my wall!”

Landau stares up at the top-right corner of the scene. There is indeed a princess standing beside a sword-bearing prince. She is beautiful with a firm bust and crystal eyes that gaze out over the room under fluttering eyelashes. Landau grins. One day the boy might look at her and think something completely different.

“I would rather have a soldier or an airplane or a panzer. Not a stupid princess.”

“There is already one soldier in the house.” Landau adjusts his belt. He feels for the pistol, half-expecting the barrel to be warm still. “Anyway, this is different. This is fine art.”

“I just don’t want some Jew painting fairy tales in my room.”

A compelling point. Landau is not often forced to defend Jews in conversation. But the boy is just a boy. He cannot yet be expected to understand the subtleties, the complexities that make it possible for a Jew to be simultaneously a beautiful painter and an unworthy creature. Nor can the boy yet be expected to understand that works of art are not necessarily prone to the same biological or ethical failings as their makers. Landau thinks of the dentist lying dead in the street, his body probably stiff now, bled out. The dentist apparently was very skilled.

“Some day you will appreciate art for its beauty and war for its dullness,” he says.

***

Landau has read that Jews believe sleep to be a form of short-term death. After a man falls out of consciousness, he can only regain it by the grace of god. Although he considers himself an agnostic, he finds this notion appealing. Landau fears sleep. He fears its inexplicable dreams and inherent vulnerability. Some nights he avoids it entirely by pacing, working. Some nights he induces it with cognac. On this night, he is drinking and thinking about his son. The boy is growing smart. He is not only memorizing the slogans from school but also beginning to understand the ideas behind them – hard and complicated notions abut the Fuhrer and the Jews and all of Europe. Landau wonders whether the boy will be permanently scarred from growing up in wartime. Then again, Landau himself grew up in wartime, and he is not a savage. Nothing like it.

The Jew Schulz, for example. Not just anybody would let Schulz into his home, much less his child’s bedroom. Schulz never spoke though, and he always appeared to be averting his eyes from something. I wonder what he sees, Landau thinks. Maybe he is afraid of his own creations. How typical that would be. The snarling crocodile, the sensitive bear, the ships, the horses, and the princess with her shining eyes. Where could such figures come from anyway? It can only be that they appear to him in the ephemeral death of the night.

He would return in the morning, Schulz, escorted furtively by private guards and watched carefully all the while. He would set to work at whatever shading or sketching or imagining lay before him. And when Landau came home in the evening, he would survey the progress. He would note the randomness of the Jew’s composition and seek some kind of order in his methods – one section almost finished and another hardly begun. Landau would marvel at the gentle lines and coloration, and find himself wholly pleased by the fantastical shapes as they came to life on his son’s bedroom wall.

***

Not having slept, Landau leaves for work before dawn. When he gets there, he climbs the three flights of stairs to his office. In the quiet office, he maps out his daily calendar and writes a few memorandums destined to reach a large wooden desk – certainly larger than his – in Berlin, where they will sit unread in a large stack. Once the memorandums are completed, Landau allows himself a moment to savor the quiet around him. The curfew has yet to be lifted. The Jews have yet to emerge from their slums. The headquarters is not yet buzzing with the official business of war. In this hour Landau can truly think, the complicated logistical problems of arranging guard rotations and train schedules are more solvable. In this hour, Landau can ponder the philosophical and practical merits of various leadership tactics. He can guiltlessly think up ways to advance his career: he is sure that the clever new policies that will simultaneously impress his superiors and undercut his rivals like Karl Gunther are just beyond his reach. Yes, Landau’s best ideas come in the morning when life is still glistening, having been freshly breathed unto him by God, and the day has yet to begin its slow and inevitable surrender to the permanent onslaught of minor inconveniences.

In the afternoon, Landau naps for thirty minutes at his desk – small dreamless compensation for another restless night. He strolls to the officer’s commissary for some bread and coffee to fuel his afternoon. The weekly SS newspaper has arrived with a front-page article on the great progress of Hitler’s army in the East. Landau allows himself to imagine for a moment leading a combat command. Marshalling troops through the snowy Russian pines sounds far more glamorous than his current task babysitting the Jews of Drohobycz.  But Landau also realizes that he is a lucky man. A safe post in a safe city is a rare privilege for an officer, and a rarer one for a husband and father. Here he can advance his career, serve his country, and still come home each day to hold close his family and gaze at the Jew Schulz’s fresco.

A pair of hands suddenly appear palm-down on the table before him. They are soft hands, pale hands. Through the skin, Landau can see delicate blue veins. Karl Gunther lowers himself into the chair across from him, exhaling like a man who has just taken off his shoes after a hard day of labor in a salt mine. Gunther raps his fingernails across the wooden table and cracks his knuckles as a pianist might.

“Herr Landau,” Gunther says.

Landau sips his coffee and rolls his eyes. He folds his newspaper absentmindedly and notices his own reflection in Gunther’s glassy eyes.

“I suppose you have heard that I killed your Jew.”

Gunther nods and purses his lips but he does not respond verbally.

Landau considers how he might proceed. Should he apologize? The Jew, after all, had been scurrying about after curfew like some fat smuggler.

“I heard about it,” Gunther finally says, placing a small pistol and a rumpled Star of David patch on the table between them.

Looking down at the items, Landau wonders what Gunther might be getting at. He thinks that perhaps he will offer to help Gunther procure a new dentist or at least compensate him financially for a German to do the work. But Gunther is a sensitive type. The insult will matter more to him than the actual Jew. After all, what is a Jew but… Landau’s thoughts are interrupted by the pneumatic sound of Gunther clearing his throat. First the rough stuff and then a long wheezing exhale. 

“Yes I heard you killed my Jew,” Gunther says. He smiles a large open-mouthed smile, revealing rows of stained teeth. “So this morning I killed yours.”

Landau is silent. He cannot yet form a verbal response or even the thoughts that might precede such a response. So he stares. First down at the gun, its oily metal barrel splotching the newspaper and obscuring the triumphs on the Eastern front. Then at the star, so freshly ripped from Gunther’s sleeve, its threads curling out brightly over the black and white newsprint. Next at the pockmarks scattered like shrapnel across Gunther’s wide pink cheeks. And finally, finally into the depths of the crowded orifice.

Landau’s stare reaches past Gunther’s filings and his double-stacked incisors, past the swollen gums and the grime that clings to every last crevice, past the cratered green tongue and the spittle hanging from the roof of Gunther’s mouth like the loose strands of a spider web. In the darkness beyond all that, he sees the half-finished fresco on his son’s bedroom wall. The silent Schulz.  The beaming perfectly formed princess. The fearsome, lonesome crocodile.



Eric Nusbaum' photo

Eric Nusbaum lives in Mexico City. His fiction has been published in Hobart, elimae, and Needle. His nonfiction in ESPN the Magazine, Deaspin, Slate, and The Best American Sports Writing. Reach him on Twitter @ericnus

All entries in Fiction »
Next entry: As Fire Bites
Previous entry: Into the Future

« Back to main