By JAY NEUGEBOREN
So: Would he be pleased to see her? Elisabeth was bringing
good news—when you visit again, bring only good news, her father had said to
her when they had parted the last time, at Pennsylvania Station—and the good
news was that Professor Max Brödel of The Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of
Medicine had offered her a full-time position as a medical illustrator, an
appointment that would become official on the first day of the New Year.
Professor Brödel was a German emigré who had introduced the discipline of
medical illustration into the United States, and Elisabeth had completed her studies with him the previous spring,
after which she had worked with him, part-time, through the summer, fall, and
early winter. She had also worked with Doctor Helen Taussig, who was studying
abnormalities in children’s cardiovascular systems, especially in so-called
“blue babies”—children who suffered from congenital malformations of the heart—and
it was her work with Doctor Taussig and these children that she loved most, and
that she was eager to tell her father about.
She walked under the elevated subway tracks, along Westchester Avenue. It had
been more than four months since she had been in the Bronx, and she hoped that
on this visit she would be able to persuade her father to return with her to
Baltimore. She had lived in Baltimore for more than five years—since the time,
in April, 1934, when she had placed her son, Daniel, in a private institution
on Chesapeake Bay—yet in all this time her father had never visited her. Nor
had he seen his grandson in more than two years.
She drew her coat close against a non-existent wind while in her mind she
conjured up a child’s heart like one she had begun drawing for Doctor Taussig
the week before. She rotated the heart slowly in order to consider it in all
its dimensions, then sliced it in half so that when she drew it from two
discrete perspectives, Doctor Taussig and her medical students would be able to
see what was happening simultaneously on both the interior and the exterior of
A film of snow lay on the streets, from early morning flurries, but the air was
warm, almost balmy, and this probably meant that heavier snows were on the way.
She stopped and looked back toward the elevated subway station from which she
had come. Buildings that were parallel to the tracks blocked the railroad
trestles from view now, and when she looked up the hill she had just descended,
a train, entering the station, seemed suspended in the sky above the rooftops,
as if unmoored.
In Mister Klein’s butcher shop, she bought three lamb chops, and in the fruit
and vegetable store, string beans, mushrooms, garlic, and parsley. In the
grocery store, she bought candles and wine, and in the bakery, a braided challah. None of the shopkeepers
indicated, by gesture or word, that they recognized her. At the rise of the
hill where Waters Place met Iverson Street, she bought tulips from Francine, a
girl who lived in a first floor apartment in her father’s building. Francine
was 11 or 12 years old, a half dozen or so years younger than Daniel, and
Elisabeth asked her about her family, but Francine, wrapping the flowers in
brown paper, did not reply.
Elisabeth took the flowers, picked up her suitcase, and walked on towards her
father’s building. To the north and east, dairy farms and single family
dwellings stretched out on low-lying snow-covered land. The peacefulness of the
landscape comforted her, and she found herself imagining the look on her
father’s face when he would open his door. So,—you’re here again, are you? he would say—his
usual greeting—before smiling and embracing her.
On the third-floor landing, she knocked on her father’s door, but there was no
response, and she heard no sound. She was puzzled. Her father had never given
her a key to the apartment, and it was not like him to be away when she
arrived. She let her hand rest on the doorknob, felt the door move, pushed it
open, entered the kitchen. The room contained only an ice box, a stove, a sink,
a table, and two wooden chairs. The linoleum, a checkerboard of beige and gray
squares, had been freshly waxed and polished.
She set down the groceries and her suitcase, then walked through a slender
passageway that led to the bedroom. In the bedroom, the two beds were neatly
made, identical cream-colored chenille spreads covering them, and across the
iron rail at the foot of the bed that was hers, as in a hotel, a fresh green
towel and a white wash cloth.
She took off her hat and coat, laid them on her father’s bed, returned to the
kitchen, and opened the ice box, where she found bottles of milk and orange
juice, a jar of raspberry jam, butter, and eggs. On the counter next to the
stove was an unopened box of Schrafft chocolates.
The bathroom had been cleaned—immaculately so—and there was a new white curtain
hanging from silver hoops above the tub. She fingered the curtain, which felt
very much to her touch like the fabric used in surgery to drape patients. In
the bedroom, she pulled down the two window shades, took off her shoes, and,
giving in to her exhaustion—she had risen at four-thirty in the morning in
order to put in a half-day of work at the hospital—she lay down.
When she awoke, she imagined that her father’s hand was on her shoulder, waking
her so she could get ready to go with him to work. When she and her father
lived together in Brooklyn—her mother had died of tuberculosis three months
before Elisabeth’s fifth birthday—her father had worked as a sandhog, and
sometimes as an electrician, in the building of the city’s new subway system. In
those years she had often gone with him, crossing Brooklyn Bridge in a cable
car and spending whole days in places he found for her—alcoves, storage areas,
and caves that had been cut into the dirt and rock of the island. Most days she
would amuse herself by drawing pictures or playing with her dolls. She would
build and furnish houses for the dolls out of scraps of wood, metal, and
fabric, and would surround the houses with forests, lakes, gardens, swamps, and
bridges she made from sticks, stones, grass, dirt, and flowers.
She had loved to draw machines and engines, especially the large hydraulic
presses that drilled through stone, and she had also loved to draw mules,
horses, and carts, along with the various shovels, picks, axes, and mauls she
often saw leaning against walls and looking as if, like the men who used them,
they too were resting from their labors.
The men her father worked with had marveled at her ability to draw their
likenesses, and once she had finished a drawing of one of them, she would
present it to the man, who would usually give her a penny or two in return.
She reached to the bedside table, turned on the lamp, and looked at her watch. It
was nearly midnight, which meant that she had slept for more than five hours. She
thought of telephoning Alex, her ex-husband—he was the one person in New York
her father might notify if something was wrong—but there was no telephone in
her father’s apartment. Her father did not believe in telephones in the same way
he did not believe in airplanes or radios, X-rays or moving pictures that were
accompanied by sound. He did not trust what he could not understand. Nor did
he, to her knowledge, have any friends other than the women with whom he
occasionally spent nights.
From the cabinet above the kitchen sink she took down a pair of silver
candlesticks and a silver goblet, objects her father had managed to bring with
him from Poland when he came to the United States at the age of sixteen. Despite
the hour, she lit two candles, covered her eyes with both hands, recited the
prayer for welcoming the Sabbath, then poured wine into the goblet, recited
another prayer, and drank the wine. She placed the challah on a plate, covered it with a napkin, made a pass above it
in the air with a bread knife, recited a third prayer, tore off a piece of the
bread and ate it. Then she sat at the kitchen table and poured herself more
wine. Sometimes, on Friday nights, she and her father would finish an entire
Feeling a slight draft, she turned and saw that the front door had come open. She
closed it, then put the candlesticks in the sink so there would be no risk of
fire during what remained of the night. She returned to the bedroom, bringing
the goblet of wine with her, undressed, and put on her nightgown.
If her father were not with a woman, it occurred to her, it was possible he was
working the night shift at the nearby railroad yard, where, though retired, he
sometimes filled in for sick or disabled workers, helping to repair the
electrical systems of trains. But if he was at the railroad yard, why hadn’t he
left her a note telling her so?
If he didn’t return by morning, she decided, rather than wait around worrying
about him, she would perform the favor one of Professor Brödel’s friends,
Doctor John Kafka, had asked of her, and pay a visit to John’s uncle, Doctor
Eduard Bloch, who was living nearby, a block or two from the Botanical Gardens,
on East Tremont Avenue. Doctor Bloch, a recent emigré from Austria, had been
Adolf Hitler’s doctor when Hitler was a boy, had attended to Hitler’s family
during the boy’s growing up, and to Hitler’s mother during her illness and
death from breast cancer. According to the nephew, Doctor Bloch had been able
to get out of Austria due to an unprecedented act—the intervention of Hitler
himself, the only Jew for whom the German dictator had ever performed such a
Excerpted from 1940. Copyright © 2008 by Jay Neugeboren. Published by
Two Dollar Radio Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part
of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing
from the publisher.