May 13, 2016
Word count: 817
1. Her Safe Place
The sun felt warm on Vladka’s face. It was noon in the garden. She kept her eyes closed and visited the garden sense by sense. She felt the warmth and the slightest movement of air. The scent of lavender and a hint of jasmine washed over her. She could hear birds chattering in the trees and the rhythmic hum of a bee. In the distance, she could hear her father and brother unloading the wood-sided station wagon they laughingly called their truck. Her mind’s eye captured the colors of her mother’s flowers which her mom tended with affection and joy. Vladka delighted in the colors and shapes of vegetables in their neat rows. She loved the red spheres of tomatoes, the bell shape of peppers, beans climbing twisted tentacles up their poles, the curling vines of cucumbers and squash. Even as a child, the garden was always her refuge from the world.
She pulled the worn sweater closer around her on this cold December day and opened her eyes, reluctant to leave the garden. Disappointed again. Hunger pains no longer registered, but they were replaced by weakness and dizzy spells. The dank brown walls of the tiny room, the stale smell, the sheer emptiness were her reality now. Gone were her family. The Nazis had taken away her brother in an action, picking him up on the street not far from home as he returned from a friend’s house even before the family had been forced behind the tall walls of the Warsaw ghetto. Crammed into a small apartment with her grandparents and a family of four whom they did not know, life in the ghetto was still life. At first they had managed, but as uncertain weeks turned into uncertain months, round-ups became the cloud over their heads even more than the diminished food available and hours unoccupied by purpose save for the imperative to survive and to find a job which might exempt them from deportation for awhile longer. Outside of the apartment, people willed themselves to pass by the withered corpses, victims of starvation and disease, who had died where they had collapsed on the streets and were yet uncollected. There were many ways to kill people.
For Vladka, the underground youth organization in the ghetto was a blessing. It was an opportunity to meet with other young people for discussion, talk of a future, even entertainment and, ultimately, resistance while the older generations spoke of caution, patience, endurance. When she returned to the apartment after the meetings, she had more hope that surviving the Nazis and the ghetto might be possible, until she returned one afternoon to discover that her apartment building had been the focus of yet another round-up and all the occupants had been dragged from their apartments and forced into trucks. She pushed away the scene in her mind of her mother, father, and grandparents being handled roughly. “Resettlement” was the word used, but no euphemism could hide the truth in rumors which had filtered into the ghetto of mass murder by gas at Chemno. The terrifying trucks carried ghetto residents beyond the dreaded walls to the deportation center to be further transported by train, the terrified cries of the Jews in the trucks, parents separated from children, husbands from wives, echoing through the streets on the way to the station each time.
Alone in the world, Vladka turned to the youth organization for support but more so for revenge. A rage burned in her and a fearlessness, an indifference to life, so cold and strong, steeled her resolve. Because of her Aryan looks, blond hair and blue eyes, she was a good candidate to leave the ghetto on a worker’s pass into Warsaw to provide a link to the resistance on the other side of the ghetto walls.
Later on this day of visiting her safe place, her family garden of days gone by now memorialized in her memory, Vladka was to leave the ghetto to meet her contact who would help her to arrange forged identity papers and establish a residence from which she would go on to deliver messages, find safe houses for children left behind, deliver food to some in hiding, and carry handguns and explosives over the wall to the resistance fighters in the ghetto. A glimmer of hope rose in her to be escaping the ghetto, yet she had been assigned a dangerous mission on this her first day. She carefully folded a copy of the underground bulletin containing an accurate description and map of Treblinka extermination camp. This she placed in her shoe. If she was successful in getting past search and interrogation at the ghetto gates, she would be able to strengthen the goals of the resistance and inform the world of the unspeakable Nazi hell where her entire family was gassed. Vladka had found her mission: she would become a courier for the resistance.
This character and story are based loosely on the book Both Sides of the Wall by Vladka Meed, whose real name was Feigele Peltel-Miedyrzecki. The book is the account of her life from July 22, 1942, to the beginning of 1945. I had the privilege of being part of a study group led by Vladka, traveling with Holocaust survivors throughout Poland and Israel.
2. Handy Danny
The sink was clogged again. Ellen sighed. “Oh, shoot!” she said aloud. Things were slowly deteriorating since Eddie had died. Ellen hadn’t realized how much Eddie contributed to their daily comfort and felt guilty for not being more appreciative when he was alive. Ellen didn’t much care now about things. She missed Eddie for so many more reasons, but some things around the house couldn’t be overlooked. When the local weekly newspaper appeared in her driveway the next Monday, she checked the ads for a plumber.
In her search, she came across a small ad for Handy Danny. The ad’s slogan was “For those times when you need a man around the house.” There was a drawing of a man holding several tools and contact information for Danny Tucker.”
“Well, Danny, I’m going to give you a call. Here’s hoping you are indeed handy.”
Ellen answered the door to find a man not much younger than herself at the door. He had a friendly smile and a satchel of tools.
“Hi. I’m Danny. You called about a clogged sink, I believe.”
“Yes, that was me. Come in.”
As Danny worked, Ellen stayed nearby. She was eager for conversation and Danny was very obliging. His cologne or aftershave, she could never tell the difference, stirred her dormant self. Surprised at this visceral response, she turned away, brewed some coffee and put out some cookies as Danny finished and ran water in the unclogged sink.
Over coffee and cookies, Danny told her he had been a maintenance man for a small apartment complex, but life had not gone well because of his alcoholism, and his wife had left him. After she left, he took a few years to put himself back together and was proud that he was sober for 5 yrs., three months, and 2 days. Now he was retired and living with his elderly mother.
Danny rose and said with a smile, “I need to be going. Thanks for the break. I’ll just write up your bill and be on my way.
Ellen went for her purse and was surprised when she returned to receive the bill and see the charge. It was more than she would have expected, coming from an independent retired contractor with no business overhead. Still, he had done the work and she had had a nice visit with him, so she counted out the money. As she handed it to him, his hand lingered a few seconds on her hand. Or did it? Don’t be silly, Ellen, she thought.
The next week, Ellen called Danny about a stuck drawer and a wobbly chair. She was up early before he came and did her hair and makeup. There was that warm smile again and that heavenly scent that made her knees weak. On this visit, Danny asked if he could walk through her house and see what else might need fixing. Ellen thought that was a very kind and helpful suggestion. Danny carried a little notebook and wrote down several items that needed attention. A loose step, a broken tile, high ceiling bulbs that needed replacing, perhaps changing the furnace filters.
When Danny showed the list to Ellen, she agreed that this work needed to be done. She said she would check her calendar and call him to schedule some days in the next few weeks for him to return.
“I have to leave today but don’t worry I’ll be back to take care of the list,” he said, looking into her eyes a second too long and smiling slightly. “ Blue is a good color on you,” he said and quickly continued, “There’s no charge for today.”
A bit flustered, Ellen responded,” Thank you, Danny. With your help, I can get my house back in order. Eddie would be glad to know that the house is being cared for.”
Later that day, Ellen joined her friends for their weekly bunco games. The gathering was more about friendship than bunco. The women had known each other for many years, and as their husbands died, they offered support and comfort to each other. Today, they couldn’t help but notice that Ellen looked, hmm, refreshed, but no one commented.
“Hello, Danny? This is Ellen. I wonder if we could schedule some time for you to come over and work on the jobs on your list?”
“Of course, Ellen,” he replied. “Anything for my favorite client.”
Over the next few weeks, Danny arrived promptly and set to work. As he worked, Danny accidentally bumped into Ellen and caught her as she stumbled. Did he hold her a little too long? Nonsense, Ellen thought. But, oh, that wonderful scent. At the end of each day, Danny presented Ellen with a bill, explaining that he was a little short on cash because his mother’s health wasn’t good and her medicines were expensive, so being paid daily was a great help. Ellen kept quiet and didn’t dispute the amounts.
On one occasion, Ellen showed Danny her late husband’s workbench and tools. “If you need a tool for any of these jobs, just look through Eddie’s tools. He was a very handy man as well. I haven’t touched them since he is gone.”
Weeks passed. Danny found many things that needed fixing throughout the house and even in the yard. The irrigation sprang a leak. A plant died and needed to be replaced. There were rodent holes in the yard. Ellen busied herself in the kitchen, happy to have male companionship again. She always managed to have some refreshments for him before he left, relishing the conversations that went with them.
Ellen was a new woman. She took more care with her dress, hair, and makeup. She didn’t tell her friends, but she went to the drugstore, and after smelling many colognes and aftershave, bought a bottle of the aftershave she thought Eddie wore. She kept it in her nightstand and sniffed it before going to sleep.
It wasn’t until several weeks had passed that Ellen began to miss things around the house. Some of her husband’s power tools seemed to be missing. Her earrings seemed out of place. An antique necklace wasn’t in its usual spot. When she went to pay Danny, she had less cash than she thought she had in her wallet. Ellen didn’t want to think about it. Part of aging is absentmindedness. She probably misplaced her things or loaned tools to a neighbor.
At the next bunco gathering, Ellen left the group to go to the bathroom. As she passed through Diane’s bedroom, for some reason she was tempted to look in Diane’s nightstand and found a bottle of Eddie’s aftershave. Ellen was ashamed of herself for snooping and said nothing. Perhaps Diane’s late husband had worn the same scent, though Ellen didn’t remember Harvey smelling particularly good.
At the following bunco gathering, Ellen went into Joyce’s bathroom and unable to resist found a half-empty bottle of Eddie’s aftershave in the medicine cabinet. It must be coincidence, she thought.
Back at the bunco table the women were talking as usual, so Ellen wasn’t found out.
“Diane, thanks so much for telling me about Danny. He is such a good handyman! The house really looks good!” Joyce said.
“You’re welcome, but don’t get too used to him. He tells me I am his favorite client and will come at the drop of a hat when I call!” replied Diane.
Ellen went white and felt sick to her stomach. Foolish old woman, she thought. How could Danny make a fool of her like this? How had she fallen for his smooth talk? His friendly ways? Ellen excused herself saying she had a headache and left for home.
Once safe inside her house, Ellen seethed. She stormed around the house slamming doors and drawers. “Gullible! Gullible! Gullible!” She hissed. Equally mad at herself and at him, she decided blaming him was the better route. He doesn’t know who he is dealing with, she thought. How dare he humiliate me like that? And thus, Ellen conceived a plan to reduce her embarrassment. First she threw out the aftershave.
When Danny next appeared to work, Ellen brought him cool drinks which had the slightest trace of vodka. Over the next weeks, vodka was included and increased in the drinks. Lemonade, coffee, cola, tea all tasted better. Rum balls. Salsa laced with alcohol. Chocolate pie with a healthy measure of chocolate mint liqueur. Danny remarked how wonderful everything tasted.
At the next bunco gathering, Joyce and Diane and now Lois complained that Danny was missing appointments to fix things at their houses and when he did work it was sloppy and he was withdrawn. Ellen said nothing.
Meanwhile, Ellen had purchased a small drone. Fortunately, both her neighbors were away for summer vacation, so Ellen could practice flying it in her yard undetected. Finally she was quite good at it. After a few attempts she was able to land the drone on her roof with just a wing hanging over the edge. She called Eddie.
“I don’t think I can come over today, Ellen,” Eddie slurred.
“Oh, but it so annoying to have the drone hanging off the roof. It could fall and hit someone in my yard. The teenager down the block must have flown it there, but he denies it is his. Can’t you please come over? After all, I am your favorite client, aren’t I?” Ellen teased.
“Of course, you are. I’ll swing by in an hour,” he muttered.
When Danny arrived, it was apparent that Handy Danny was back on the bottle. He swayed a little in the doorway and smelled of beer.
“It is hot out, isn’t it, Danny? Before we go outside to see the drone, why don’t you have some orange juice? You look a little tired.”
Danny eagerly downed the cool glass of Ellen’s special orange juice. Ellen smiled and led him outside to see where the drone had landed on the roof.
“You know where Eddie’s tall ladder is, don’t you? It is in the shed next to the house. Be careful on that ladder. The paving here is so unforgiving. I have to leave for a doctor’s appointment, so after you get the drone down, just lock the door when you leave.”
Ellen knew the ladder in the shed was old and Eddie had intended to replace it. One of the rungs was loose. She had loosened it a bit more herself. She wasn’t surprised to see his truck still in her driveway when she returned home.
At the funeral, Ellen noticed that Eddie’s elderly mother was really his much younger girlfriend, who arrived in a late model car and wearing Ellen’s antique necklace. The women from her bunco group were there looking forlorn and tsking among themselves about the unfortunate accident and how awful that Ellen had to find him that way. Ellen appeared appropriately stricken; however, she was really feeling just fine and now her home was in good repair.
The Writing Group meets at the Apache Junction Library twice a month: the first Wednesday of each month from 1 to 3 pm and the third Tuesday of each month from 6 to 8 pm. Participants are encouraged to share examples of their writing with other members of the group. What follows are a few of my contributions.
1. Her Safe Place
2. Handy Dandy