Old Leopold Hahn shivered on a bench in Cedar Hill Cemetery beside his wife’s grave. He hadn’t read the weather forecast that morning so he didn’t know that it would be this cold. It was March, for God’s sake. Where was spring? He stuffed his veined hands into the pockets of his light-weight raincoat. He wrinkled his heavy brow and glared at the winter sun that was a poor ghost of itself through the gathering clouds. Even the weather tormented him! Yes, the world was out to get him, to make him miserable, to make him suffer. Unlike the dead he had worries. It was the price he paid for being alive. That morning he had gone to the one-eyed Chinese grocer on Essex Street to buy the Times. It never sold out but that morning, the one day that he needed to know the weather it was gone…finished. His gloves were gone too. He remembered putting them in his pocket before leaving his walk-up apartment. The Chinese grocer’s clever ten-year-old son must have pick-pocketed them when he skateboarded into Leopold. Then the black waitress in the coffee shop, a new girl, misheard his order of toast and brought him a toasted bagel, thinking that’s what an old Jew wanted, and glared at him when he sent it back.
What he went through; how much he had to do to stay on top of things so no one took advantage!
Leopold turned stiffly, like a rusted bolt, and spat beside the bronze memorial plaque that was set in the ground next to his late wife Anna’s headstone. To those people who thought he was paranoid, a bit crazy, a man whose unfair share of life-long suffering left him with a poor opinion of mankind, he pointed to the plaque. Here was proof that the world was out to get him. There was another man buried in his plot!
He had made the discovery in November, the eleventh of November to be specific. For five months Leopold had struggled with the tyranny of bad choices of what to do with this stranger, Morris Lustgarden, who was wrongly interred.
It wasn’t a simple mistake. His plot, he learned, had been sold twice. What made matters worse, Lustgarden’s wife, Ruth, who Leopold had never bothered to notice, was buried to Lustgarden’s left.
How angry he got when he thought about those months. The cemetery administrator, an unhelpful fat man by the name of Mr. Miller, refused to admit there was a problem. He conceded nothing, not the mistake, not fraud, not incompetent record keeping. He was hardly willing to give his name. Mr. Miller said only that the plots in that section were bought in bulk by a burial society and resold through participating synagogues. Did he have his deed?
It took Leopold until New Year’s to locate the deed in a shoe box. In January Mr. Miller confirmed that, yes, grave 9 in line 8, block 16 had been sold twice. There was nothing the cemetery could do, Mr. Miller insisted, unless the man’s family agreed to have him removed. Leopold could complain to the Division of Cemeteries of the New Jersey Department of State. But don’t expect any miracles, he warned. Possession was nine tenths of the law.
A loud car honk reminded Leopold that it was time to leave. His old watch told him that he still had ten minutes before their agreed pick-up time. He twisted on the bench and confirmed that, yes, it was Rabbi Davis’s black Mercedes.
In his weekly routine’s final ritual, Leopold knelt at Anna’s weathered granite headstone, closed his eyes, moved his lips and prayed. His calloused fingers touched her name and evoked her face. It was always the same beautiful young Anna; it was the night of the Anschluss, two days after the German Army marched into Austria. They sat together in the American Bar at Number 10 Karntnerstrasse among other men and women, Jews like them, trying to comprehend how the annexation would change their lives. They were in love but had not yet declared themselves. Her thick brown hair was wound in a bun; her intense eyes peered into his soul; she leaned across the table and kissed him passionately, urgently, grabbing the moment.
A second, longer honk by the rabbi disturbed the cemetery’s frozen silence. Leopold let go of the memory and opened his watering eyes.
“Poyer!” he mumbled to himself.
His fingers continued across her name and settled on the last ‘n’. Even after thirty years of grinding keys in his tiny locksmith’s shop, his fingers still had their lock-picker’s touch.
“My promise I break,” he whispered. “Forgive me.”
Leopold rose to his feet with an old man’s unsteady balance and brushed last year’s grass from his knees. He tossed another broken branch off her grave. He had warned the Hispanic groundskeeper that the diseased elm’s branch would come down in the February ice storm, but did he listen?
Leopold moved stiff-gaited down the cemetery’s meandering stone path to the rabbi’s parked car. The wind was picking up in advance of the gathering storm and an ambiguous precipitation began to fall -- not snow, not rain but soft mushy hail that battered the top of his fedora. He picked up his pace. Even as he carefully avoided the slippery patches, his mind was preoccupied.
Rabbi Davis helpfully threw open the passenger side door and Leopold slumped into the fine leather seat. It was a new car with all sorts of gadgets, including a GPS navigation system that Rabbi Davis had proudly demonstrated on their drive out that morning. Their return route passed through Paramus, along Route 17, to the Holland Tunnel and the lower east side of Manhattan.
“I honked twice. Didn’t you hear me?”
“What’s the rush?”
“There’s a storm. Traffic will be backed up. The radio is predicting ten inches of snow by midnight. This always happens in March. Don’t worry. This car has all-wheel drive.”
He ignored the rabbi. He talked too much. He wasn’t like rabbis he remembered in Vienna, this suburban American version. A young man, Leopold guessed, not more than forty, and yet his hair was ghost white. He didn’t dress like rabbis he remembered in Vienna. Who was he trying to impress with his thin Italian loafers, three-piece suit and tightly-knotted silk tie? His small hands were delicate; his nails manicured.
“Will you be ushering tonight?” Rabbi Davis asked.
Leopold looked away. “Yes.”
Leopold had kept his pledge to Anna to remain an active member of the congregation. She knew that he didn’t accept the institution of religion and that his commitment to the Torah was shaky. They had no children. Twice each month Rabbi Davis volunteered to conduct Friday services for their shrinking congregation.
Leopold coughed. The first cough triggered a succession of violent hawks that reached deep into his lungs. He placed his neatly folded handkerchief to his lips and wiped pink phlegm onto the white cotton, where it lay like evidence.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” What else should he say? To tell the truth would start a conversation.
“Have you talked to the Legal Aid lawyer about the deed?”
“He can’t help.”
“You shouldn’t be so negative. Help finds its way to you in mysterious ways. Help is a gift that comes to those who seek it.”
Leopold looked skeptically at the rabbi. What did he know of suffering, this man of God in his fancy Mercedes?
“You side with them too much,” Leopold said. “I don’t have time for words.”
“The synagogue sponsored the burial society but it operated on its own. The synagogue wasn’t responsible.”
“It recommended them. It made a commission.”
“A small commission. It was a service. It does everything possible to work with honest people. Occasionally there is a bad apple. This was an honest mistake, regrettable yes, but honest. I’m sure that at that time Rabbi Singer told you to ask your own questions and make your own judgment. You shouldn’t blame the synagogue. It’s not right.”
What did he know about right and wrong, this big talker?
Their conversations always ended in the same place. Sympathy was an easy emotion to offer but it did nothing to change the situation. No one wanted to take responsibility. What had he done that God should make him suffer this terrible uncertainty? Or, perhaps God had nothing to do with it. What did God care about faulty cemetery records in Woodland, New Jersey?
He and Anna had lived through the World War II; she survived Dachau, he Buchenwald. They were reunited in a camp for displaced persons outside of Paris in 1946. After all they suffered it was absurd that a bureaucratic error should keep them from being together in the end. This wrong was a stone in his shoe.
Here’s what Leopold had found out about Morris Lustgarden. He was an accountant who lived in Maplewood; nice man, quiet, upstanding member of his congregation who lost his wife in childbirth. He raised his baby son, Jack, alone. The boy turned out badly, but no one said that it was Morris’s fault. The boy was a wayward soul from an early age, a prodigal son. He hung out with the wrong crowd in high school, dropped out before graduating, was arrested for shoplifting and turned his gift from his father, a native knack for numbers, into a successful run counting cards in Atlantic City, where he developed the bad habit of spending beyond his limited means. Father and son lost touch. No one who Leopold spoke to remembered seeing Jack at Morris’s funeral. It took Leopold a month to track down the young man in the hope that they could resolve between them the error of the twice-sold plot.
In-bound traffic at the Holland Tunnel was slow because the snow had caused the Tunnel authority to divert the second lane to out-bound rush-hour commuters, so Rabbi Davis and Leopold arrived at Eldridge Synagogue with no time to spare before the start of Friday evening services. Already the empty street was covered in snow. Falling temperatures had turned the afternoon’s ambiguous slush into half-dollar snow flakes. Leopold stuffed his hands in his raincoat’s pockets when he stepped out of the car.
“Will you lock up after services tonight?” Rabbi Davis asked, quickly assessing the storm’s potential to inconvenience his return drive home to suburban New Jersey. “I don’t want to get stuck in the city.”
When the shortened service ended, Leopold gave the basket with the evening’s modest donations to the rabbi, who took the money and disappeared into his chamber. He was gone just long enough to lock the cash in the synagogue’s cabinet safe.
Rabbi Davis walked out into the heavy snow but he stopped briefly in the open door, glancing back at Leopold, who must have unconsciously let his personal dilemma rise to the surface of his face, for the rabbi paused in his hasty exit and asked with genuine concern: “Are you okay? You look troubled.”
Leopold pulled closed the heavy, old carved wood door, shutting out the swirling snow and cold air, and locked himself in. Wasting no time, he went straight to the chamber. Once inside he went to the cabinet safe.
Leopold took a frayed leather bag from his pants pocket, where his body heat had kept the tensile steel flexible. Amateurs had dozens of specialty lock-picking tools. All he needed were two: a pick and a tension wrench. As a young lock-picker in Vienna, he had opened jewelry-store’s front-door locks with broken tape measures, jack knives and filed keys. He liked to say that it wasn’t the tool that made a good lock-picker but the hand that held it. In the scarcely-heated synagogue, his fingers had grown cold. He blew on his palms and rubbed his fingers together to stimulate circulation.
Yes, as a young man the money and thrill had drawn him to the life of a lock-picker. He wanted nothing to do with his parents’ meager lives working in their butcher shop. If it weren’t for the promise he made to Anna, he would have drifted along as a petty thief. She rescued him. She made him give up his dark art. To mark the passage she gave him a gold watch inscribed with one word: Faith. He let go of that life but he kept his interest in the principles of locks, the science of their secrets and turned it into a little storefront business after the war.
Unlike people, who tormented him, he knew exactly what to expect from a lock. In his prime, the synagogue’s safe would be open in twelve seconds. Tops.
Leopold recognized the safe’s lock as a five-pin Weiser. He put his black steel pick into the lock’s opening and followed with the tension wrench. Leopold looked off into the dark room; his eyes were unfocused and he visualized the location of the pins on the sheer line. He counted them so that he knew what he was dealing with. Five pins he confirmed.
It was open in one minute. He wiped a bead of sweat from his upper lip.
Leopold stared at the synagogue’s negligently un-deposited cash. For weeks his plan was a clever solution to an intractable problem but because it was an idea, nothing more, he didn’t have to ponder the moral question. Once he took the cash there would be no turning back. Regret the burglary? Yes, of course, but what choice did he have? Suffer again? Let this be done to him?
Leopold took six thousand dollars from the synagogue’s cash reserve and added it to a thick envelope that held the four thousand dollars in life savings he had withdrawn from his bank account that morning.
He closed the safe’s door. There were only two keys. The pious congregation president held the second. He had warned him that the synagogue’s records were sloppy and bank deposits irregular, but did he listen? He was sorry that suspicion would gather around Rabbi Davis.
At the corner of Henry and Essex Streets there was a solitary park bench. Leopold sat alone. Not another living soul was out in the storm. Snow was heavy and steady and it fell straight to the ground. There was no wind. Tenement windows cast their weak yellow beacons into the eerily quiet night.
An inch of snow had accumulated on Leopold’s fedora when the canary-yellow Corvette pulled up to the curb in front of the park bench. Its throaty muffler was silenced when the engine shut down.
Leopold had spoken to Jack twice on the telephone but they had not met in person. The young man Leopold imagined on the other end of their conversations bore no resemblance to the tall, rail-thin man who stepped from the Corvette. His dyed blond hair was spiked and his left ear had two silver rings. His forest-green leather jacket, black pants and pointed crocodile cowboy boots made him look like a Las Vegas gambler. His cheeks were sunken. His eyes were shifty and dark.
“Do you have the money?”
“If you waited for spring I could get a discount digging him up. Miller said they still have to use jack-hammers on the ground. Of course, waiting won’t change what you pay me. It’s the same inconvenience.”
What did this moocher know about inconvenience, Leopold thought?
“I sympathize with you,” Jack continued. “It’s a stupid mistake. But it’s work for me to solve your problem, you know what I mean. I got to dig him up, pick another plot, pay the cemetery. So it has to be worth my time.”
“I have a change to make,” Leopold said.
Jack stopped hopping in the cold snow and looked directly at Leopold in an aggressive manner.
“I have doubled the figure. I’ll pay you ten thousand. But I want both moved.”
Jack looked suspiciously at Leopold. He rubbed his sunken cheek with his gloved hand and evaluated the unexpected request and larger sum.
Leopold waited and said nothing. When he first learned of Jack’s wayward character, he’d pounced on the notion that cash might buy his cooperation. Yes, he had felt badly using him to separate Ruth from Morris. For all Leopold knew, they had loved each other as much as he and Anna. That cynical plan had been the last refuge of a desperate man. But, Leopold had his own problem to fix and he couldn’t be troubled by the problem he was creating for Jack. Oh, sure, he could sacrifice himself and abandon his adjoining plot, but to what end? To end up in some other miserable place while the grave-squatter Lustgarden, beneficiary of a stupid clerical error, should have the pleasure of his wife’s company. Where was the justice in that?
But then it struck him, out of the blue, that the answer was to disinter both and rebury them together. It was the way to remove another stone from his shoe.
“It’s not enough,” Jack said.
“It’s all the money I have. Why isn’t it enough? If it costs five thousand for one how is it that two should cost more than twice five?”
“Because I want it to. What are you going to do? What are your choices, old man?”
Leopold glared at the young man, at once angry to be hondled over a perfectly reasonable proposition and pitying the hard heart that would not grasp the decency of Leopold’s gesture.
“For my trouble I need something more.”
“I have no more.”
“How do I know?”
“I give you my word.”
“I suppose that’s worth something. To you at least. But it won’t buy me a seat at the card table.”
“Here, take this.” Leopold lifted his arm with its wristwatch. “It’s all I’ve got. There is nothing more.”
Jack leaned forward attracted by the beautiful old time piece, but then pulled back, curious about Leopold’s motive.
“Why are you moving both? What’s in it for you?”
Leopold said nothing.
“Don’t do it for me. I don’t care. I never knew her.”
“Take it. It’s yours.” Leopold removed the wristwatch and held it out.
Jack shifted his attention back to the watch. “I suppose its worth something….Does it keep good time?”
“Always. It saved me.”
Jack looked skeptically at Leopold, pausing on the odd remark, but it didn’t stop him from taking the offered wristwatch and stuffing it in his pocket.
Leopold watched the young man walk to his Corvette. He closed his eyes and said in a low voice, almost a whisper, that was lost in the silent storm, “May it do the same for you.”
From his open car door, Jack called back in a satisfied voice, “Don’t worry old man, you’ll get your grave back.”
That evening, after sipping a shot of cognac, Leopold put himself to bed in his fifth-floor walk-up at 148 Henry Street. During the night he died quietly in his sleep.
About the author:
Paul is a senior executive in a large New York-based media company. He writes short stories in the morning before leaving for work. He has taken creative writing courses with Nahid Rachlin at the New School and the 92nd Street Y. Several of his stories have been work shopped on Zoetrope's website. His stories have appeared in Fictionwarehouse.com, Electronpress.com and TheRoseandThornezine.com, darkmoonrising.com and crimescenescotland.com. He actively supports the arts and sits on the Boards of Poets and Writers and Intar Theater.
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