The Book of Guilt
Parked on a slab of hot concrete in the Florida sun, Ingrid Brandt sat slumped in her wheelchair, the sharp glare of August lighting in her memory the ghostly faces of pleading Jews on a cold night in 1944, images sudden and unexpected, a mind betraying its host and turning upon itself with pinpricks of memory in the frail life of an old woman seventy years and 5,000 miles from the sins of youth.
Forcing the unwanted thoughts back into their dark corners, Ingrid spoke to a woman left sitting not far away, a woman she didn’t know and who for the moment was focused on inhaling as much of her cigarette as possible before being rolled back inside and left to play Parcheesi with Mr. Rootly.
“I used to live in Boulder, Colorado,” Ingrid said. “My second husband took me there but I didn’t care for it much.” Hoping for a response, Ingrid looked across at the woman but found herself distracted by the dozen or more brown-edged burn holes in the mandatory smoking apron. “The mountains are pretty, but I couldn’t enjoy them.”
Giving full attention to the hot glow of her cigarette and its last inch of tobacco, the smoker made no pretense of listening to or even acknowledging Ingrid, dropping a curl of ash on her apron and cackling loudly at a private joke. Ingrid thought the laugh was an insult and spun her chair to the right, maneuvering it onto a sidewalk leading away from the woman’s smoky snigger.
At a safe distance, Ingrid fumbled in her pocket for a carefully folded paper napkin. Uncovering a single Lindt milk chocolate truffle, she placed it in her mouth, almost groaning as the flavor spread across her tongue. She sat for a moment beside a flowering oleander, eyes closed, savoring the sweetness, fingers reaching out to the flowers at her shoulder.
“Ingrid, what are you eating?” a voice called from the doorway. “Don’t touch those oleander flowers! Those are poisonous, hon. We’ll have to scrub your hands.”
For a moment she considered grabbing a handful of the flowers, stuffing them in her mouth and swallowing before the aide could reach her.
Over a waistline-conscious dinner of grilled chicken and steamed broccoli, Warren Holby peppered the bland meal with thoughts of Ingrid Brandt and her gradual decline into angry senility. He had discovered a friendship with the ninety year-old through their love of reading, a joy sadly diminished by the woman’s loss of sight and subsequent dependence on audio books and the occasional volunteer offering to read to her. The situation was made no easier by Ingrid’s irascibility, her critical adlibs and blue-stocking nature. More than one reader had run fleeing from Ingrid’s room.
In 1938, her sixteenth year, Germany was a flourishing country but one where conversation was guarded. Ingrid and her two sisters had grown up in the city of Karlsruhe. Both sisters were married, only one still living in the city. Her father’s death by heart attack some years earlier had forced them to sell the house on Luisenstrasse and move to rooms above her mother’s perfumery on a street not so elegant. The building was one of many comprising a triangular block of stores and upper floor dwellings. Next door was a fine clothing store owned by a Jewish family—until they disappeared. Two doors away was the Golden Cross, a favorite eating place for many in the neighborhood. An apothecary on the corner had a window decorated with ascending tiers of glass urns filled with a rainbow of colored waters that in summer sent flickers of colored light dancing onto the sidewalk outside.
The perfumery was a small but elegant shop of cherry wood paneling framed in ebony. Its glass cases and shelves were stocked with bottles and names like Shalimar, L’Heure Bleue and 4711, hard-to-find nylon stockings, tortoiseshell brushes, combs and barrettes. Ingrid lived a comfortable life there with her mother and when not in school worked alongside her.
Before seeing Ingrid on Monday, Warren spent the usual hour reading to a woman named Betty-Ann Folger on the second floor. It was the daughter’s custom to drop by every morning, getting her mother up and out of bed and dressing her in a mixed bag of bright colors. This morning Betty-Ann wore a pair of baggy red slacks topped with a blouse of royal purple. On her feet were a pair of children’s Hide n Seek Keds, pink and white with blue laces, and fixed in her permed and snowy hair was a red bow.
Warren smiled at Betty-Ann, turning the pages of a book he asked, “Where did we leave off in our story last time?” He turned another couple of pages. “Was it the part where Mrs Rigsbee is waiting for the dogcatcher?”
“Why, yes…I think it was where she fell through the bottom of the rocking chair.” The tiny woman looked blindly up at him and dabbed at her mouth with a rumpled tissue. Ninety-seven years-old and weighing a feathery eighty pounds she enjoyed a good story more than anything.
“Before you continue the story excuse me a moment,” and reaching under the cushion of her seat pulled out a bottle of Wishbone Italian dressing. “My friend Irene puts this dressing on everything…nurses have to stop her from sipping it straight out of the bottle.” She passed the bottle to Warren. “Elizabeth brought this refill for her. Would you mind writing Irene’s name on the bottle? There should be a pen on the table there.”
“Sure,” and using the pen he wrote IRENE across the label.
“I try to tell her not to pour it over everything on my plate. You know I can’t hardly see anything and she has that bottle out sprinkling before I can even say the blessing.” The old woman related this fact as if it were a small bother and nothing to fret too much over. The truth was Betty-Ann did little more than pick at her food, joining the table for the enjoyment of company more than whatever was on her plate. It was hard for anyone to get her to eat much and for the past six months she had been practically living on a daily can of Ensure, nudged and coaxed by the nurses to finish the full eight ounces. “Now tell me what happened to Mrs Rigsbee in the rocking chair.”
And with Betty-Ann squeezed close in her wheelchair, their knees almost touching, Warren picked up where they had left off the time before. His reading with Betty-Ann required some projection to ensure that with her weakened hearing she caught the words. There was also the matter of big voiced nurses and aides, more often than not shouting to each other from points up and down the hallway. On days when those voices were subdued, Mrs Lightcap at the other end of the room played her television at near full volume. Still, he managed to bring some life to their reading, using different voices for the characters, and it must have worked because Betty-Ann followed every word.
Just when he reached the last page of a chapter Irene appeared, working her tennis ball shod walker down the hallway to Betty-Ann’s room. Irene was also a small woman but carried a good deal more flesh than her friend. She apparently had no problem with maintaining an appetite despite her advanced age and took it upon herself to manage the dining room table where she and Betty-Ann along with two other ladies had their lunch and dinner. She oversaw everything through a pair of thick tinted glasses which dangled from a chain around her neck and gave her a magnified pop-eyed look when she had them on.
Always impatient in waiting for Betty-Ann’s reading session to end, Irene took no interest in the story, whatever it might be, resenting Warren for the time he spent with her friend. One recent Monday Irene had appeared earlier than usual hoping to take her friend downstairs for game time. When Betty-Ann protested that it was her story hour, Irene stamped her foot and without a word turned, guiding her walker to the waiting round of senior Wheel of Fortune, proving that old age and childhood are never complete opposites.
Later that morning Ingrid met Warren with a groan. “I thought you would never get here. What time is it?”
“Time for us to settle ourselves in the garden with coffee and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.” Warren gave a wave to Ingrid’s roommate Iris, almost bowed under giant headphones connecting her to the television in the corner.
As he maneuvered her out of the room, Warren noticed that Ingrid was wearing mismatched shoes. He chose to keep the mix-up to himself, amused at his friend’s harmless confusion.
Beyond the automatic chill of indoors the air outside was still, leaving the patchy shade soaked with heat and buzzing with insects. Balancing mugs of coffee provided by a friendly nurse’s aide, Warren and Ingrid sought out a corner under an overhang of oak branches and sat for several minutes without talking. Face propped by a hand against her palm, Ingrid stared at the bricks beneath her feet, the pulse of a small vein at her temple the only sign of movement.
The tenor of their lives in Karlsruhe, Germany changed in 1939. In the early morning hours of June authorities paid a visit to the home of Ingrid’s sister, taking her husband away, disappearing forever into the dark history of the Geheime Staatspolizei—the Gestapo.
Over the next four years war shortages and distrust shattered the lives of many until Ingrid was forced to leave Karlsruhe. Her mother refused to go, encouraging Ingrid to make her way north to Berlin in the hope that work and food would be more plentiful. She left several days later accompanied by a neighboring girl, the two of them finding space on a train headed to the capital. It was a terrifying journey for the young women, broken daily by strafing from British planes, when passengers scrambled out of the train to crawl beneath the cars. Gazing ut through fatigue dulled eyes days later, they saw the outskirts of Berlin crawling into view through shattered windows. In a long slow-motion crawl of time the train limped onto a siding and disgorged its frightened cargo.
The companion went off in search of an aunt and uncle leaving Ingrid to wander the streets of a broken city looking for work and a room to sleep in. Sympathy and directions from an old man led her to Anhalt Station where she found a place to sleep. In five days she came by a job as a street sweeper but ran out of money before receiving any pay.
The patio was still under the warm breath of late summer, the bending of grass, the twisting fall of a leaf, the humped passage of a striped caterpillar. A canna lily, its red and yellow petals straining upward lay flat on the ground, unrecovered from a recent battering of wind. On a peeling brown fence a lizard did pushups, its rosy inflated sac at the throat pulsing out signals to mates and challengers. An ant strayed up Ingrid’s arm in a zigzag path, dodging the slaps aimed at knocking it loose.
Sensing that the quiet corner was safe from threat, a box turtle the size of a halved melon lumbered from beneath a hedge, aiming itself for Ingrid’s feet. Warren pointed out the approaching reptile, surprised by the sudden look of glee on the old woman’s face. The turtle stopped inches from her right foot.
Warren reached to pick it up, telling Ingrid over his shoulder, “He likes your shoes.”
The turtle drew its head and legs in, docile and patient while their fingers traced the beauty of its yellow and black geometry.
Under heat made bearable by splotchy shade, the whir of cicadas and a melody of birdsong, Warren and Ingrid considered the arrival of September, wondering if it would bring a breeze, a relief from the endless days of scorching heat.
He opened the book and began to read, and though Rilke was a favorite of Ingrid’s, this time she had difficulty keeping up with the writer’s words, her mind battling opposing trains of thought. The distraction came from across the garden where a mole-faced woman in badly stained white stared at the two of them through the green of a Chinese fan palm, her fingers separating the fronds to give a better view.
“They’re whispering about me again.”
“Whispering what, do you think?”
“They’re on to me.”
“On to you? About what?”
“Pointing them out…locking the door.”
Warren closed the book. The pages flattened by muggy heat seemed tired of being read.
Ingrid sipped at her tepid coffee and asked Warren the name of her roommate. She was experiencing a growing failure to recall the names of objects and people. In telling Warren something about an injury last week she struggled for the word thumb, and then for a full minute stuttered and stamped her foot trying to remember Band Aid.
“What’s that woman’s name?”
“Your roommate’s name is Iris.”
“What sort of background do these people have? I’m afraid of her.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Yesterday Iris took her little telephone into the bathroom saying she had to make a phone call. I was frightened. She was calling someone to tell my secrets.”
“She just wanted to make a call without disturbing you. Nothing unusual about that, is there?”
“So you’re taking her side? Just like everyone else you think it’s my fault!”
“Fault? No, I don’t believe it’s a matter of fault, Ingrid.”
“Oh, just go! Leave me alone. I can get back to the room by myself. When that woman isn’t there. Go! Maybe I will see you on Monday.”
Ingrid was arrested for stealing bread. A week of beatings and endless interrogation ended with her stuffed into a boxcar and delivered to the hell of Ravensbrück ninety miles north of Berlin. For the next two years she wore a green “criminal” triangle on her sleeve and clung to life with the desperation of a cornered rat, finding in the last year a way to increase her chances of survival by collaborating with her keepers in their rush to exterminate.
From the beginning her criminal status in the camp linked Ingrid to the hated Kapo work team leaders, criminal inmates for whom sadism, perversion and spying were methods of survival. Among these brutal women Ingrid quickly learned that weakness invited further torture or gassing. She learned and she adapted, in time becoming to all in her barracks a cruel and hated collaborator best to avoid.
In her private struggles of coming to terms with the person she had become, Ingrid rationalized that the hardened shell of cruelty was only a temporary borrowing from those who held her life in the balance, that it was something she could immediately cast off on the day she regained her freedom.
Long after her liberation from Ravensbrück Ingrid realized finally that casting off the cruel disguise of her camp days, of becoming again the kind, well-bred young woman was a recovery hampered by the recurring images that haunted not only random moments of her days, but fueled her dreams and turned her nights to misery. Thoughts too often of teeth and frantic faces inside the gas chambers, sleep nightmared by memories of the Mittweider mobile gas vans when duty required her to escort the women to the trucks, assuring them they were being taken to Mittweider, a recovery camp for the overworked. Nights colored by turning locks on doors and checking that exhaust pipe extensions were firmly secured to direct fumes into the freight compartments. And after the vans returned from twenty minutes of circling the camp, opening dead mouths for guards to pry among searching for gold-filled teeth. The spittle of Poles, gypsies and homosexuals dampening her fingers with a lifelong stain. It was long after her liberation from Ravensbrück and these memories nettled her still.
Warren had just parked his car, about to go through the wooden gate leading to his front door when he noticed the one person he tended to avoid at all cost. Ten feet away, delivering a heated monologue to the property maintenance man, his small arms slashing with angry punctuation, Don Mueller ranted about the latest headache on his list of complaints. Don was a miniature, barely reaching five feet in height. He had the hands and feet of a child, the haircut of a marine drill sergeant and the rolled waistline of a Michelin Man. Fond of fashion themes, this time he was dressed for a role on Hawaii Five-O in what looked like beachcomber gear. Don not only collected and magnified the petty grumbles of condo owners but offered all the answers, ignoring the thoughts and opinion of others. A late-in-life online PhD in educational administration had somehow imbued him with the assurance that he was the smartest person around, capable of managing all problems without benefit from the ideas of those close to the situation. Unfortunately, he was retired, without any hobbies and on most days of the month an aggravation to everyone around him. The maintenance man stood looking off over Don’s head, his face empty of expression, thoughts a million miles away.
“Warren! Warren…glad I caught you.” Turning from the maintenance man Don trotted quickly over to Warren before he could disappear through the gate.
“Yeah, what’s up, Don. Only have a minute before I have to run.”
“Well, this is going to shock the hell out of you, Warren, but you probably weren’t aware that in 2009 our Board of Directors mislaid a total of seventy-five dollars.” He fished in his pocket for a small notebook, opened it and licked the end of an index finger before flipping the pages. A couple of incoherent mumbles brought him to the point and he held out the notebook slapping at the pertinent page with the back of his hand. “Take a look at that! I wasn’t sure at first when I got to looking over the old financial reports, but…”
Warren interrupted. “Did you say 2009, Don?”
“Yes, that’s right. I’ll email you a copy of the financial report.”
“No thanks. Did you say it was seventy-five dollars or seventy-five hundred?”
“Yes, seventy-five. Can you imagine what those fools on the Board are doing when they lose our money like that?” The man’s face was gradually reddening as criminal misdeeds took over his imagination.
“Tell you what, Don,” Warren said moving again toward the gate. “That was three years ago and in my mind not much to bother about. But thanks for bringing it to my attention.” Don had already begun to reach for additional paper proof, about to offer up more evidence when Warren disappeared behind the gate. Walking to his door the thought repeated itself, “Man doesn’t hear a word except for what comes out of his own mouth.”
Curving around the cluster of sea grape at the edge of his patio, Warren was stopped by a loud roar from the far side of the swimming pool.
A badly sunburned man sitting astraddle a plastic float yelled up to a third floor balcony, “Edna! What time you and Earl taking off in the morning?”
The only slightly fainter reply came down, bouncing off the pool’s surface. “We plan on pulling out at 6:00 but you know Earl.”
Warren didn’t know Earl and it would stay that way. There were attractive qualities about Pieces of Eight, the forty-five unit oceanfront condominium that Warren had bought into four years earlier, but he was beginning to lose sight of them, bothered more and more by the baker’s dozen of unpleasant neighbors and the rotating crowd of holiday renters and their hyperactive children running rampage over the property’s three acres. He realized now that he had been naïve in thinking that the condo at Pieces of Eight would offer the quiet seclusion he sought. Retired for the past couple of years, his hopes were built upon the enjoyment of a quiet place to read and write, a stretch of uncrowded beach for walking and freedom from involvement in “community” affairs. But things had worked out differently and on those times he didn’t spend away from the condo, he hid inside, the screams of children like fingernails on a blackboard or he ignored the door knocks of neighbors wanting to know if he could help them figure out the remote control on a new television.
Warren shifted the phone to his other ear and with his foot pushed open the doors leading to the deck outside his second floor bedroom. Phone in one hand, Corona in the other he walked onto the deck, shooing the neighbor’s cat off the wide plank arm and folded himself into a weathered Adirondack chair. Continuing his conversation he said, “I think the spells are more frequent recently. I’m concerned also about her increasing confusion with words. You know Ingrid, she’s always been…well, for the two years I’ve known her, mentally sharp. She’s slipping, Lillian. Don’t you think so?”
Lillian Tougas was a longtime friend of Ingrid’s, had known her for a dozen years before the broken hip and confinement to a nursing home. Like Warren she visited regularly, but now recuperating from surgery hadn’t seen Ingrid in a month, had only spoken to her on the telephone once in the past two weeks.
“Oh, Warren, driving is still hard for me. I’m not sure I can get over to see her this week, but let me call her son and see if he’s aware of what’s going on.”
Warren knew the son and believed any accurate description had to include the word negligent. He would resent having to drive the fifty miles to visit his mother and quickly find excuses to put it off as long as possible.
“Why don’t you call Ingrid tomorrow and chat with her for a while. Call me afterward and tell me your impressions.”
After hanging up he sat looking out at the surf, at a couple in low-slung beach chairs at the water’s edge, the incoming tide tumbling over their feet and lower legs. Lillian cared about Ingrid and Warren knew that she would do everything she could to both cheer and help their friend, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that Ingrid’s decline was irreversible.
When Warren had two years earlier first offered to read to residents at a nearby nursing home he never imagined becoming something other than a part-time voice to his elderly listeners. Ingrid had from the beginning been a challenge, her intelligence impossible to miss, her taste in books a welcome surprise, personality a combination of suspicion and distrust. But he had won her over and in the process gradually made a friend who fulfilled a need of his own.
Warren was often bothered by the thought that he had neglected his mother in a time of need, using distance as an excuse to absent himself and avoid the face-on problems of decline and death. Even now it was hard for him to admit that in some ways his time with Ingrid provided relief from that guilt. Not one to speak of these things, he worked through them as best he could without allowing the associations to dominate his thoughts. It was a private guilt beneath the surface that found comfort in his time with Ingrid.
Three days after his last visit Warren returned to the nursing home, entering through a door off the rear parking lot and threading his way through the medi-carts, and stalled residents randomly parked up and down the long hallway leading to Ingrid’s corner room. A small knock and he pushed open her door not surprised to see her once more rearranging the loose 5 x 10 cards that made up her address book. She did this at least three times each week, either not remembering the last time or believing someone had jumbled the cards for spite.
This time she looked up and said, “Oh, it’s you.”
“Want me to help you?”
“Here, put this card in the right place…Do you see two cards for Ruth Salvesen? I think she has two cards.”
“Yeah, there are two and they’re both exactly the same, showing the name only without an address.” He remembered making one of the cards himself. Quickly shuffling through the stack and arranging them in alphabetical order for the sixth or seventh time in a month, he added the last card saying, “Since they’re the same, I’ll throw the extra card for Ruth away.”
At least a dozen cards in the box showed nothing more than a name followed by a country, sometimes crossed out and rewritten with the name of another country or city. Curious about the cards without an address, he asked Ingrid about them.
“They are people I want to remember. Don’t worry about it.”
“Look. This one for Hanna Weidner first had Leipzig below her name, but that’s crossed out with Südwest written below it. What is Südwest?”
Quickly nervous, Ingrid snapped, “I said don’t worry about it,” and reaching for the cards in Warren’s hand she tried to stuff them back in the box.
“Here, let me do that.” He wondered where these names fit into the years.
They went through the usual routines that were a part of getting ready to leave the room, Ingrid whispered to Lois behind the dividing curtain, “Lois, I’m going to the…” She looked at Warren, saying in a small voice, “What’s the name? The place with the big tree…We always go there.”
“I’m going to the garden.”
Warren was having difficulty hearing Ingrid. Her voice had lost strength and he was leaning in to catch her words. She was saying something as they made their way outside to the garden, but he couldn’t make it out and answered with a non-committal, “Uh huh.”
“I should have brought a sweater to cover my shoulders,” she said as they moved past the nurse’s station.
“You won’t need it. It’s warm outside.”
They were sitting beneath the shady overhang of oak leaves, Warren reading from the Rilke book, when he noticed Ingrid gazing at him, a totally unknowing look on her face. He paused for a moment, then continued, “‘But perhaps after this descent into yourself and into your inner solitude you will have to give up…’” Warren again raised his eyes from the page to glance at Ingrid.
After a moment she leaned forward slightly in her wheelchair and asked in a childlike voice, “Why are you here?”
Before he could answer that question, Ingrid continued, “Are you going to pull all my teeth?” And rubbing at something on her fingers she said, “It’s what they do to everyone.”
“Oh, Ingrid, my friend, I’m here to read to you.”
“Are you going to take my teeth?”
Unsure what was happening to Ingrid, his thoughts taken up with what he should do, he feared she might have suffered a mild stroke, something he thought not uncommon in people her age.
Taking Ingrid back to her room, Warren asked a nurse to come and look at the still befuddled woman. He waited outside the room for ten minutes, the nurse finally stepping out and explaining in a low voice that she had given Ingrid a sedative, that she was resting now and that he should go on home and check with them by telephone in a couple of days.
“Can you tell me anything? Is she basically all right?”
“I’m sorry, but I am not allowed to discuss a patient’s condition with you.”
Late that evening Warren sat in the dark of his upstairs deck, the quiet unbroken but for the wet snuffle of small waves spilling onto sand. His thoughts were on Germany of the 1940s, about fears from that past now pulling Ingrid apart. Her talk with Warren about wartime Germany always guarded, always a fragmented story of hardship without detail. Her mumbled fears and suspicions finally led Warren to suspect the untold story. Talk of locked doors and pulled teeth, a fear of secrets revealed, a box of precious cards carrying names from another time and place. The faces of young women, Hanna Weidner, Ruth Salvesen, Milena Froehlich and a dozen more counted on the fingers and repeated, a litany of penance to assuage the demons of guilt.
Warren learned several days later from Ingrid’s son that his mother had suffered a stroke. Two weeks after his last visit he returned to the nursing home and found Ingrid still in bed. Outwardly, she looked fine, her white hair with its single streak of black neatly combed, but her eyes had lost their sparkle, had turned inward. He held her hand and spoke to her from a chair beside the bed. She had no idea who he was, asking over and over again if she had locked the door.