Revenge, loss and frustrated desire are never far out of the picture in this darkly comic tale of one man's journey to oblivion.
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About the Author
His book, Doctors and Patients: What We Feel About You (Macmillan) gathered favorable notice, notably in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. He has also recently published a memoir, The Little White Coat, in German translation in Vienna.
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Max: It Should Only Be
By Peter Berczeller
Watkins Media LtdCopyright © 2017 Peter Berczeller
All rights reserved.
I'm not a gutsy guy. Never have been. Giving – or even getting – a bloody nose has no place in my repertoire. The only time I ever use a knife is when there's a brain to be carved up. The same goes for killing people. Which, for us doctors, is a big no-no. Our job is to keep patients on top of this earth, not six feet under. In medical school, we'd have those endless, middle-of-the-night discussions on what we'd do if Hitler were brought into the ER. In Argentina, presumably, in 1945, bleeding to death from bullet holes tracing out a Star of David on his chest. Give him blood transfusions, put a tube into his trachea, run him to the OR? Or drag it out, wasting a minute for each million he killed, concentrating on the calligraphy of the "Do Not Resuscitate" order prematurely placed on his gurney?
I've always been for the first option. Playing God is never an alternative, where you're the one to decide who's to live and who's to go down the drain. I'd bust my ass to treat patient Adolf; that's the doctor part of me talking. But then, once he's better, I'd wish him the worst. When I'm off duty, I'm not hindered by the scruples I was just bending your ear about. Taking the law into your own hands does make a lot of sense in very special circumstances. For instance, a guy comes home from work early. As soon as he opens the door, he hears a loud moaning coming from the bedroom. He charges in, and catches his wife in flagrante delicto, the ecstatic look on her face explaining the unfamiliar sound coming through the door. The perfect setup for a crime of passion. Not that I'm advocating vigilante justice, but the toxic mix of adrenaline and testosterone urging the finger to pull the trigger, or the hand to plunge the knife, may just be impossible to resist.
That's what's called acute revenge. No lag time between the deed and the response. It's high drama for all the participants: the cuckolded husband, the wife whose voice instantly changes register from moans to groans, and of course the soon-to-be-dead – or at the very least maimed – unwelcome visitor.
Nothing like what's been building up in me all these years. The need to whack my real father's executioners simmering on a low flame, with very little hope for ever coming through with the real McCoy. A classic case of if I could I would, but I can't, so I won't.
A while ago, my research led me to a special spot in the brain. Jiggle it the right way, and it'll do something to surprise you. I call it the "suicide center." For good reason. Nudge it into doing its specialty act, and, next thing you know, you've got a suicide on your hands. So far, it's worked fine with laboratory animals. Now I'm about to try it on humans. The pipe dream I've had since I was a kid found a new home when I had this "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" moment. That's the reason I'm on my way to Austria right now.
Five of the seven (the other two died during the war) who assassinated my father, are still around. Four of them in St Marton, a small Austrian town on the Hungarian border, and one, Weissensteiner, in nearby Wiener Neustadt. Franzl – that's what the good old boys who frequented his tavern called him – was the honcho in charge of the killers, automatically putting him at the very top of my hit list. You know how parents bring up the Boogie Man when they want to scare the shit out of their children? For me, it was the name Weissensteiner that did the trick. I kept on hearing that word, that name, when my folks shifted to German so I couldn't follow what they were talking about. Looking somber and frightened while they were talking gibberish in front of me. It didn't take long for Weissensteiner to become my own special Boogie Man.
Every night, he'd rise up at the foot of my bed like a genie. The blue eyes and harsh look of Tommy Byrnes, our neighborhood bully, merging with the closest resemblance to the devil I could think of: the Joker, from the Batman comics. He'd come all the way to Fort Lee, New Jersey, to spirit the three of us back to St Marton. Meanwhile slitting the throat of our dog Hugo and setting the house on fire. By then I was in panic mode, holding onto my little prick like a drowning dog grabbing at a branch. After a while, Phase 2 would kick in. Relief. I was in my bed, and the dog was snoring next to me. I'd held off Weissensteiner for another night.
I never found out my family's real story until I was almost sixteen. According to the earlier, bogus version, my parents got married right after my father finished dental school. They settled down in St Marton, but, a few years later, the Germans marched into Austria. Out of nowhere, swastikas everywhere. Weissensteiner was the boss of the Nazi operation in the town. Under him were Strobl, the game warden; Baumgartner, the owner of the local sawmill; Kleinert, the head of the Gendarmerie; Wagner, the jailkeeper; Hochberger, the butcher on the main square; and Czemenecz, the school principal and Weissensteiner's brotherin-law. Between them they made life miserable for the Jews. Walked into their houses and helped themselves to whatever caught the eye. Furniture, pictures, silverware, cash, you name it. From the get-go, they arrested Erich, my father, and Doctor Brenner, my parents' best friend, who was their next door neighbor. Also Feivel, the Rabbi's oldest son, Wurmfeld the lawyer, and a couple of the more prosperous businessmen of the Judengasse, the ancient ghetto. They put them all in the local jail. The beatings, courtesy of Weissensteiner and crew, began right away. They pulled Feivel's pejes, his forelocks, out with pliers. Knocked out teeth, broke some ribs. Brenner was their special target. Not only was he a Jew, but, even worse in their eyes, a socialist. They took him out to the courtyard that night, and told him he was about to be shot. Put him up against the wall, and cocked their guns. At the last minute, they backed off. "Just kidding," they yelled, as if it was all a big practical joke.
After several days, the Nazis released the prisoners. A couple of weeks after, there were no Jews left in town. A convoy of open trucks took them, and their two suitcases per family, to Vienna. A week later, the Judengasse and the four-hundred-year-old temple were dynamited.
When I was around sixteen, a letter came in the mail. It bore foreign stamps, and the return address was intriguing. From what I could understand, the sender was a committee for victims of Fascism. The name of the recipient on the envelope was "Frau Brenner." The only Brenner I'd ever heard of was their friend in St Marton, the one who was put against the jailhouse wall for the fake execution. I couldn't figure it out.
I got my answer that evening when I asked why my mother was called Brenner. She couldn't stop sobbing, while Erich kept pacing up and down, hands clenched behind his back. It turned out my mother was originally married to Dr Richard Brenner. He was my father, not Erich, who was their bachelor best friend across the hall. She was a couple of months pregnant with me when Richard and Erich were arrested. Richard must have known that Weissensteiner and his boys weren't going to be satisfied with batting him around like the other Jews. That's why, early on during their first night in jail, he asked Erich to watch over his wife and unborn child if anything happened to him. His premonition was on the button. After beating up the others, they came for Richard last. The large cell where the prisoners were held looked out on the jail courtyard, so they had a direct view of what happened next. My father – my real father – was stood up against the wall. No fake execution in this up-to-date version of the events. Real bullets were fired from each of the seven hunting rifles on the firing squad. After the shooting, they all clapped each other on the back and went back inside, leaving the body – it was still twitching – where it had fallen.
Until that day, revenge against the people who drove my parents away from their homeland was not something I'd ever thought about. No reason to feel bad about Richard Brenner. Hadn't he lived to tell the tale after being stood up against the wall? I'd even made up a story about the ones who stayed behind. Onkel Adolf, Tante Cecilia and their children, Arpad and Paul, whose pictures, old-time posed studio prints, stood on top of the piano. Seeing them there ever since I could remember, I felt like I knew them. I'd even turn their pictures one way or another, hoping for some magical sign from their eyes that they knew I missed them, even though we'd never met. The truth – that they were deported and killed – must have been too terrifying for me to absorb. In my fictional version, they got away at the last minute, ending up in a safe place. Palestine was in the news a lot at that time – maybe there?
A child who's born with only one parent left alive is in a special bind. To actually be touched and held by your father or mother, and afterwards hear the song and dance about mommy or daddy having gone to heaven, is a special calamity. You spend part of the rest of your own life looking for them in every little corner, increasingly convinced the business about heaven was just a fanciful rumor. And tough as that is, it's even worse when you find out your parent has been murdered. That it could have been avoided, it didn't need to happen. Somebody – not some sickness or accident – was to blame for the void in your life.
Finding out about my real father was not the only revelation to hit me that evening, when the real story behind the myth my parents had cooked up finally emerged. I became so tied up – had to be – with my shock at finding out that the man who I thought was my father all along was just a last-minute pinch hitter. Erich did the right thing. Married his best friend's widow – no way of ever knowing if she was really his cup of tea – and raised their child as his own. Ever since I could remember, I'd never had any reason to suspect Erich wasn't my real father. I was so preoccupied with Richard – not only how he died but also how he lived – that everything Erich had ever done for me as I was growing up now seemed the work of an impostor. While he was still alive, I never spoke to him about this struggle within myself. It ended up as a paradox. The less I felt for him, the more affectionate my behavior. A big hug first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Acting as his perennial sidekick at the synagogue, even though the mumbo-jumbo I kept hearing was an automatic turnoff. All the while yearning for Richard, my only father.
I'd pretty much forgotten about Weissensteiner by then. But his face (Tommy Byrnes and the Joker) wasn't what floated back to me now. Instead, I kept seeing that scene in front of me, like a movie that keeps running with no ending in sight. The prisoner indistinct (it was only way afterwards that my mother doled out a few of my father's pictures to me), as he's being marched to the wall. The executioners' faces hidden by the turned-down brims of their Tyrolean hats. I kept seeing the guns raised, the body clenched and collapsing. Did I cry at the end of this nightly silent torment? I'm sure I did, when I thought of him lying on the ground in a red puddle. Followed by scenes where I broke into the jail at the very last minute. Then my one-man execution squad would put them up against the wall. Afterwards, the coup de grâce for each of them, with a bullet through the mouth. This magical wishlist of mine was as remote from fulfillment as having it in mind to fuck some movie star. You know there's not a chance in the world, but just the thought of it gives you a warm glow, deep in your gut.
One night, I dreamt that I was in St Marton to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah. In the next scene, my picture's in the paper, with a screaming headline (conveniently translated into English), "BAR MITZVAH BOY GOES BERSERK, MURDERS PATRIOT." There's an old picture of Weissensteiner, looking jaunty in his Nazi uniform. Another picture showing his coffin wrapped in a swastika flag, with people filing by. Cut to a jail cell. I'm being taken out to the wall – the same one – to be executed by firing squad. Because I'm a minor, they don't offer me a last cigarette. Instead, they let me keep my yarmulke and prayer shawl on until the very end. Ready, aim, fire. Like father, like son.
You must have heard about phantom pain. Your mind says your leg still burns or itches, but it's kidding you. The leg is gone, for good. Not that different from the way I felt. Richard was gone, but I kept feeling his presence. I never had much to go on, but I always imagined him smelling of apples, from walking through one orchard after another on the house calls he made on foot. And how he shaved with a straight razor, the only kind they used in those bygone days.
Now it's a different ballgame, and I'm about to face the real article. Meet and greet Herr W. and his henchboys, and make sure it is a brief – a very brief – acquaintance. Thanks to the ingenious instrument dozing in my carry-on luggage. Something to remember my father by.
In scientific research, you learn to be patient, let the facts come to you. This experiment is the exception. Bring on those results. I can't wait.CHAPTER 2
GRIEVING FOR EVA
Nowadays I think about suicide much of the time. Not my own, God forbid! The idea of it. It's always gotten a bum rap, seems to me. Jumping off the sinking ship before the Captain gives the order is meant to be a sin. Look at it this way though: what's wrong with speeding up the process, DIY style? Think of what you save yourself. No walking the last mile with your ass hanging out of one of those hospital skivvies; doctors, about as much help as priests on Death Row, going through the motions with you. The dropping blood pressure rendezvousing with the soaring pulse; the 42nd Street and Broadway of leisurely dying. Fate? Destiny? Forget it. That's just the random dressed up as the predictable. But suicide is like making a reservation. No getting turned away at the door. Come right in, your end is waiting.
That's one way of looking at it. Still, it's not every day the brain gets to talk the body into killing itself. Depressives tend to do that. Psychiatrists lose sleep over it. Either because they're worried their patient is about to do it, or because she's done it already. Still, how about the ones who aren't depressed at all? Out of nowhere, they hang themselves, swallow gasoline and light a match, stick a plastic bag over their heads. Unpremeditated crimes against their nearest and dearest: themselves. But why?
My special interest in suicide goes back to the time when Eva, my old girlfriend from college, hung herself. On her fortieth birthday, no less. No warning signs, nothing to suggest she was about to do it. When we were twenty, we were about to get married, go away to graduate school together. Always a cheerful girl. Even after my mother broke up our romance by threatening me, a Jewish mamma's boy out of Central Casting, with "break that glass under the canopy, you're breaking my heart; besides, with all the excitement, I'm ready to drop dead anyway." Eva and I stayed close; but soon after, she married somebody else. An orphan, as it happened. The only time she ever got teary-eyed was when her favorite uncle, Alex was his name, came up in conversation. Always a happy go lucky guy; one night, while the rest of the family was at the movies, he slit his throat.
I spoke to her a week before she did it. She sounded the same as always. Her husband didn't notice anything either; at least that's what he told me afterwards. They were in the middle of getting dressed to go out, when she disappeared into the kitchen and strung herself up.
Friends and relatives of suicides are a guilty bunch. That's because they're always blaming themselves for not picking up the warning signals. Which was the way I felt too. But I also kept wondering, could she have had a backstairs romance with depression? Same as spending long afternoons fucking some secret guy. Wearing her despair out of sight, like naughty underwear. All the time calculating the height of the beam, the strength of the rope.
I was stuck. Even with a retrospectoscope – don't go running out looking to buy one; just a word doctors use for taking another, oftentimes guilty look at the past – I couldn't come up with any clues to her being a closet melancholic. So why did she do it? There had to be a reason.
Excerpted from Max: It Should Only Be by Peter Berczeller. Copyright © 2017 Peter Berczeller. Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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