Dr. Nathan Bork sat in his home office scanning the files of patients that he was about to meet. The office had a comforting study atmosphere with soft leather chairs, fully stacked bookshelves and high ceilings that imparted the feeling of security without being claustrophobic. He puffed on his pipe as he examined the file of Marjorie Bombasco. When the doorbell rang, he glanced at his watch. Marjorie was, as usual, a little bit early. Dr. Bork ushered her into his office and offered her one of the soft leather chairs. “What do you think we should talk about this evening Marjorie?”
She furrowed the eye brows on her round face. “I tried to go to The Grand Union this week but I couldn’t make it. I used to go there every day with my Aunt Dottie, but now, even when I think about getting in the car and driving a few blocks, I start to feel one of my spells coming on.”
“How did it feel when it was just starting?”
“There’s a voice inside me that says ‘You can’t do this. What’s the matter with you?’ and then I feel myself starting to lose control.”
“Whose voice is it that says that to you, Marjorie?”
“I don’t know what you mean. It’s my voice, I think. Then the fear that something very awful is going to happen as soon as I leave the house starts to build up inside me. Then I look for some way to put the trip off. This week I called my son Ronald and started a fight with him and then I told myself that I was much too nervous to try to do anything except go to work because of the state that he had worked me up into.”
“Why do you think that you called your son?”
“Because he used to be the one that helped me to get around and now he just stays away from me. Doctor, I feel like I’m going crazy. I feel like one of these times, I’m going to start screaming or shaking and not be able to stop and that they’re going to have to come and take me away and lock me up someplace.”
“Do you feel that’s what will happen to you if you go out?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Some of the things that I’ve done when I’ve had these spells would certainly make people thing that I’m crazy and should be put away.”
“Marjorie, first of all, I want to assure you that you’re not going to go crazy or have to be put somewhere. What you are suffering from takes a heavy toll on you but you are very sane, my dear.” Dr. Bork smiled and the gray-bearded man’s expression seemed to smooth some of the lines that had creased in around her eyes and mouth. “Now let’s get back to this voice that tells you what you aren’t going to be able to do. Tonight, I’d like to concentrate on where you think that voice comes from.”
She looked baffled. “It comes from me.”
“Yes, of course it does, but do you think that it comes from you as a grown woman?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Let’s talk about who the first person that told you that you couldn’t do things was?”
“My grandmother,” said Marjorie. Her face seemed to take on a little girl’s look.
“Can you remember anything specifically that she told you that you weren’t supposed to do?”
“That’s a hard question. She raised me. There were lots of things.”
“Think of something that was really important to you that she told you not to do.”
“Ask about my father,” said Marjorie almost automatically.
Bork nodded. He had expected that response. “What else?”
“When I was small, she never wanted to let me go outside to play.” Marjorie’s face was interested and surprised at her own recollection now. “I remember her saying that I had to be careful that they didn’t come and get me.”
“Who was going to come and get you?”
“I don’t know, but I remember thinking that it also had something to do with my father.”
“I don’t really know but after they found out that I went to the prison, everyone was very angry at me.”
“Let’s talk a little about the day that you went to the prison.”
“How old were you?”
“I think I was fifteen, maybe younger.”
“What made you decide to go there?”
“I heard my grandmother and my aunts talking one day when they thought that I was out of the apartment. Really, I was out of the apartment but I used to hide under the kitchen window and listen to what they were saying.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Because I wanted to know things and somewhere along the line I figured out that they weren’t going to say anything when they thought that I could hear, so I used to sneak. This one day, I heard them talking about how Louis Fox and Charlie Dresden were going to be getting out of prison soon and that fourteen years had been a very long time but that they wanted to be careful. Then I went to the library and started looking through newspapers of fourteen years before and that’s when I first learned about my father.”
“What did you learn?”
“I learned that my father had gotten involved with some pretty ugly people. I remember thinking that they must have forced him to do the awful things that the papers said he might have been involved with.”
“What do you mean by might have been?”
“His name was never mentioned. The man that I thought was my father was always referred to as the third assailant.”
“What made you think that was your father?”
“A lot of things that I had put together from bits and pieces of conversations, but mostly it was just a feeling that I had.”
“So you went to the prison to see these two men?”
Marjorie smiled. “When I think about it now, it seems like it must have been a different person. I played hooky school and took a bus down to Penn Station and got on the train that went to Rahway.” She stopped and shook her head. “It’s funny, the things that you remember. I remember what I was wearing. I had on black and white saddle shoes and a brown coat that must have been given to me by my Aunt Dottie. I remember the conductor asked me where I was going.” She paused and cleared her throat and met the doctor’s eyes. “My grandmother always taught me to speak up clearly when I had been asked a question. I remember the conductor saying something like ‘And where will you be going today, miss?’ and me speaking right up loud and clear and saying ‘Rahway State Prison please’. Then I remember feeling that I must have said something terribly wrong because everyone had turned around to look at me. I remember being very embarrassed because my dollar bill was very crumpled and it took the conductor a long time to straighten it out before he punched my ticket. It was uncomfortable, but I was just a kid so I sat there and waited for it to be over.”
“What do you remember about the prison?”
“I haven’t thought of that day in a very long time, but right now I feel like I remember everything. There was stone and metal everywhere and a strong smell that burned my throat. I remember that the room they kept me waiting in had a very high ceiling with windows at the very top of the wall. I remember thinking that it must be part of the punishment to put the windows in a place that nobody could see out of them.”
Marjorie paused in her story and opened her purse. She took out a pack of cigarettes and Dr. Bork lit it for her. She looked around at the book shelves and smoked for a few seconds. “Do you really think that going back over all of this old stuff will help me now?”
“Yes, I do Marjorie.”
“But it was so long ago and I never had any trouble travelling then.”
“Conditions like yours don’t usually start over night. They take a long time to be created and become so full blown. But I don’t want you lose your train of thought. What else do you remember about the day at the prison?”
“I remember this big Irish looking guard coming into the room and the echoes of his voice when he spoke. He told me that Charles Dresden said that he didn’t know who I was and that he didn’t want to see me, but that Louis Fox had agreed to speak to me.”
“Did you actually see Louis Fox?”
“Oh yes. I remember him sitting on a bench and looking at me without meeting my eyes. I remember thinking that everything was very clean and that it wasn’t dirty the way that I imagined a prison would be. He was a large man but his voice was no more than a whisper. He thanked me for calling him Mr. Fox and said that I was the first person in fourteen years who had called him that and that he appreciated it.”
“Was Mr. Fox able to tell you anything about your father?”
“At first he pretended to not know who Larry Fischer was but when I told him that I was Eileen’s daughter and that my mother had died six years ago, he said that he was sorry. He said that he had no idea what happened to Larry and that he didn’t know how he possibly could help me. I remember starting to cry and asking him to just tell me one thing that was true about my father. I told him that my aunts and grandmother had never been willing to mention my father’s name and that I didn’t even know what he looked like. He said that some things were better left alone and that I had no way of knowing if Larry Fischer, who he wasn’t even sure that he knew, was even my father. But I begged and carried on a little. I think that he felt sorry for me or that I made him nervous, because finally he said that he would be getting out in a few weeks and that he could call me when he got out. I told him that my grandmother and I didn’t have a phone and that she had taught me that telephones were for rich and important people that other people needed to talk to. Then he asked for my address and I got scared.”
“Why did you get scared, Marjorie? Was it because he was a prisoner?
“No that wasn’t it. I was frightened that he would come to my house and that my grandmother would find out what I had done and that I would be in big trouble. My Aunt Dottie was always telling me that I created big problems for my grandmother and that I was lucky that they hadn’t put me in an orphanage a long time ago. I guess that I was afraid that if Louis Fox ever showed up at the door that it would be the last straw. I told him that I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody where I lived. I remember that he smiled when I said that and that he had missing teeth that made his smile look scary. Then he gave me the phone number where he was going to be living and told me to call him in two months.”
“What else do you remember about that day?”
“Not very much. I got caught for not going to school and told my grandmother that I had gone roller skating. She called me a dirty little skunk. My grandmother didn’t curse, and made me go with her to church for every one of its prayer meetings for the next two weeks.”
“Did you ever see Louis Fox again?”
“I called the number that he gave me two months to the day later. He said that he had found out what happened to my father and that I should meet him at the Jewish cemetery on 4th street that next Monday afternoon. I cut school again. It never occurred to me to be frightened to meet this man in a desolate place like a cemetery. When I think about things like that now, I must have been another person or something.”
“Perhaps you were just very naïve.”
“It was a cold day and I got there very early and had to wait for a long time. When I finally saw him coming down the street, I wasn’t even sure that it was the same man. He had on a suit and a hat and a very large, tan overcoat, and he was with this Jewish man who was all dressed in black and had a long beard and hair hanging down the sides of his face. Mr. Fox didn’t introduce me to the man and spoke to him in a language that I didn’t understand. We went into the cemetery. The stones were large, not like the way it is in Jewish cemeteries today. I remember that when we walked down the rows that some of the stones were taller than me. I remember having this feeling that I was in another kind of prison and that these men were kind of guards too. I thought that this was a prison that nobody ever got out of and I had this urge to turn around and run out of there and go back home to my grandmother. But I had come so far and felt so close to actually finding out something real about my father that I forced myself to keep walking.”
“Marjorie, is this the first time that you remember feeling that you had to run home in order to be safe?”
“I don’t know. I never really thought about it like that. All I remember was that it was so cold and that the wind was blowing through the spaces in the stones and that my hands were red and that the man in black was leading the way and that he walked slowly and it seemed like it was taking forever.”
“Then what happened?”
“We stopped in front of this stone and it wasn’t as big as some of the others. Mr. Fox handed the rabbi some money and the rabbi opened the book that he was carrying and began to read from it.”
“Was it a prayer book?”
“It must have been because he was singing and swaying back and forth and I remember wondering why neither of the men had taken off their hats if they were going to pray. I had never heard anyone making sounds like the man. Then while he was still doing it, Mr. Fox turned to me and said, ‘This is your father’s grave Marjorie. I couldn’t really find out too much about how he died because it was a long time ago, but I will tell you that he was a good man who just wound up getting some unlucky breaks.’ Then I looked at the stone. I stared at the name: Laurence Fischer, 1871-1930. It was like a siren went off in my head. I said, ‘This can’t be my father’s grave! Mr. Fox, I know it can’t be.’ He said, ‘This is your father’s grave, Marjorie.’ I cried and hollered, ‘This man was much older than my father would have been. My father was your age, Mr. Fox.’ He just insisted that this was Larry Fischer’s grave and maybe all that it proved was that I wasn’t Larry’s daughter. Then I got angry and said, ‘Why did you bring me here to do this to me? Is it because my father helped you to kill that man?’ His face was puffier than I remembered it being back at the prison. He stooped over and brought it down close to me and whispered in this fierce voice, ‘This is your father’s grave. Leave it alone. Go ahead and live your life. That’s all I can tell you.’ I looked up at the man in the black suit and he had his eyes closed and was making sounds and swaying back and forth like he didn’t know that either of us was there. I remember shouting, ‘Why can’t someone just tell me the truth?’ Then I was running and I ran all the way to the bus stop and when I got off the bus, I ran all the way back to our apartment on Gillette Place. I remember how good it felt to be home and how I didn’t care if I ever if I ever found out the truth as long as I could be home and feel safe.”
“Well Marjorie, I think we have both learned quite a bit tonight. I want to follow up on this next week.”
That was his signal that the session was over. Marjorie reached for her purse and took out her checkbook. “I feel so guilty about paying you so little for seeing me, Dr. Bork”
“That’s the one thing that we don’t ever have to talk about, Marjorie.”
Dr. Bork ushered her to the door and watched as she walked to her car. Her husband was waiting. When she got into the car, George didn’t ask anything about her appointment and Marjorie felt relieved to be on the way home.
On the occasion of her next weekly appointment, Marjorie arrived at Dr. Bork’s office carrying a rather large, thick folder. She placed it on the desk next to her chair and lit a cigarette.
“How was your week, Marjorie?”
Marjorie stared at the psychologist before she began to speak. Her eyes were dark. “I’m not quite sure how to answer you, Dr. Bork. Let’s just say that our last visit had quite an impact on me.”
“I was hoping that it might.”
“I’ve begun to search for my father again.”
Bork was unable to hide the look of surprise that splashed across his face. This was taking a direction that he hadn’t expected. “What do you mean?”
“I couldn’t sleep after leaving here last week. I couldn’t get those images of the cemetery and the prison out of my head. I couldn’t get away from the feeling that there must be some way to find out what happened to my father, so I’ve begun to check through old newspapers at the library.”
“And what were you able to find?”
“Quite a bit. Some things that I knew and then forgot about, some things that I’m not sure that I ever wanted to know.”
“Why did you decide to restart this search?”
“Because whenever I start thinking about my father, I get this feeling that he might still be alive someplace and that he might not even know that I ever existed, or he might not just not be able to bring himself to find me after all this time.”
“Marjorie, asking about your father was just one way of going back to your childhood and trying to find some keys that will help you to make yourself. What happened back then really isn’t that important today.”
“Would you be able to say that if we were talking about your father, Dr. Bork?”
Bork looked down at his pen and his legal pad. “I don’t know how to answer you about that, but let’s try something else. Tonight let’s talk about the other members of your family.”
Marjorie stared at the folder. “I was really hoping that we could continue to talk about my father.”
Bork could hear the stress in her voice. Perhaps he could turn this obsessive feeling into a useful tool. Perhaps the obsession itself was a kind of key to some of the answers that they were seeking. “Let’s talk about your grandmother. What kind of a woman was she?”
Marjorie slid her palm across the top of the folder. “If I had to sum it up, I would say that she was broken-hearted.”
“Why would you say that?”
“I don’t know but as a child I can never remember her laughing and whenever she did smile there was a lot of sadness in her face. Maybe it was because she was sick. Maybe it was because we were so poor. Maybe it was because her children were such a disappointment to her or because her husband died when she was still a young woman. I don’t know. She never wanted to talk about her life.”
“Where was she born?”
“North Adams, Massachusetts. She was a Lowell. She graduated from Cheshire Academy. I’m sure that spending her life in furnished rooms and basement apartments was not what she dreamed of when she was young.”
“Do you think that she loved you?”
“I’m absolutely sure of it. Or at least I used to be. Who knows now, maybe she just felt sorry for me. She always said that we were poor people who would never get ahead in the world.”
“Did she ever hit you?”
“Not really. She’d tell my Aunt Dotty when I did something that was really wrong and my aunt would hit me.”
“Tell me about your aunt.”
“She’s not an easy person to sum up. I remember wishing and praying that she was my mother. I used to ask her all the time to tell me is she was really my mother.”
“What would she say?”
“She’d say that she wished that she was but that it just wasn’t true.” Marjorie shook her head and her bottom lip began to tremble. “She had style and charm, but she could be so cruel. I gave her a home and the best that I had to offer and what I can’t seem to forget or forgive her for is that she never told me the truth about my father, or my mother, or herself, or anything else.” Tears were running down Marjorie’s face now.
Dr. Bork handed her a box of tissues and said, “It will be fine if you wish to take a minute before we continue.”
“No, that’s OK. There’s nothing that a minute is going to change anymore. She knew everything and she probably created half of the lies that I have spent the rest of my life trying to unravel. Did I ever tell you that the name on my mother’s headstone and the name that I grew up with was an alias? Did you know that I was named after The Fischer Piano Company. Who knows if it was a name my father actually used? My mother was never married, and it was too much of an embarrassment to all of them to bury her or to raise me with our real names, so they just made something up. Of course I believed it until I was old enough to realize that there was something phony about it. I only wish that I had been smart enough to figure out that they had put together a complete package of lies and called it my past. It’s been difficult to find out a little at a time that everything that you’ve been told about yourself was a fiction created for the sakes of what other people would think.”
“Marjorie, tell me some of the things that they told you.”
Marjorie laughed bitterly. “None of what they told me was true. They told me that my father didn’t care about us and that’s why he left us. They told me that my mother had cancer of the throat. They told me that they were all good people who had lived good lives. It was all bullshit!” Marjorie startled herself by the use of the word. He face flushed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to use that kind of language.”
“Maybe it’s time that you called it what it was, Marjorie. Maybe bullshit is the right word. At any rate, you never have to apologize for anything that you say in this office, and you never have to worry about what words you use to express yourself.”
“Thank you, Dr. Bork. My grandmother didn’t believe in cursing. I never heard her use the Lord’s name in vain. When she was really angry, she would call me a dirty little skunk.”
“What about your mother?”
“I don’t remember. I can’t remember how she spoke. She had these tubes in her throat and all I can remember was that horrible gurgling and gagging sounds that she used to make when she had to change them.”
“Had her voice box been removed?”
“I guess so. They told me that she’d gotten cancer. They used to tell me stories of how the peddlers would sell her rotten food because she wasn’t able to smell anything. And then to find out through the newspapers that it wasn’t cancer at all.” Marjorie began sobbing.
“How did your mother lose her voice?”
“She was beaten, ok? Someone beat her so badly that they crushed her larynx and it had to be removed.”
“I’m very sorry, Marjorie.”
“That’s not the half of it. She had an arrest record. She was involved with the murder of some bus driver in Belleville. She was finally beaten again and dumped in front of some doctor’s office and she bled to death on his floor. Who knows what she was. She certainly wasn’t very interested in being my mother. She died when I was nine years old, but I never lived with her. I can remember her taking me to the movies once in my life. We took apart a bracelet that was made of nickels and went to the movies. That’s it! Now I would like to stop talking about her, please!”
“Marjorie, I can only imagine how upsetting it must be for you to talk about all of this. If I knew of a less painful way to help you, I would certainly take it. But the real truth is that until you face who you really are, you are never going to be able to face the problems that you have.”
Marjorie had stopped sobbing but the tears were still coming from her eyes. “That sounds hopeless to me, Dr. Bork. Don’t you see that I’ll never really know who I am?”
“Marjorie, I’d like you to think about it and decide what you believe would be the most useful thing for us to work on during your next visit.”
Understanding the signal, Marjorie wrote out the check and left.
The next week Marjorie was again carrying her folder. She was elated when she came into his office. “I think that I finally may be starting to get someplace with my search.”
“How’s that?” said Dr. Bork.
“The Census Bureau has found a record that says that my father was actually alive. It’s the first time that I’ve seen anything in print that says that he existed.”
“Marjorie, I’m happy for you. I don’t want to rain on your parade, but I’d like to ask you something. Do you really think that finding out what happened to your father will change anything for you in your life today?”
Marjorie was startled by the question. “I think it will change everything. It will allow me to put it all to rest, don’t you see?”
“I’m not sure that I do see, Marjorie. How is it going to do that?”
“Once I know who I am everything will be better.”
“Don’t you think that you already know who you are?”
“That way, yes of course I do, but there are so many other questions and lies that I have to sort through.”
“They don’t really matter. I was hoping that you could come to that conclusion yourself, but I see now that you are insatiable when it comes to this. Is knowing about your father going to make things better with your son or your husband?”
“Who knows what it will do.”
“Let’s talk about your first husband tonight.”
“Harry Tuck? What is there to say about him?”
“You don’t mention him that frequently and yet every once in a while I get the feeling that he is still a big part of your life.”
“He is a big part of my life, but that’s because of my son.”
“Didn’t you once tell me that he used to drive you to work every day?”
“He did. Harry and I have known each other for most of our lives. If you can believe it, he comes from a past that is even more screwed up than mine. When we got married, he said that the past was only a place for things to be buried and not something that the living should worry about.”
“Did you agree with him?”
‘I was eighteen and in love. I agreed with everything that he said.”
“Is it possible that he was right?”
“It’s possible that he was right for himself, but I don’t think that what’s right for one person has to be right for everybody.”
“Isn’t it possible that your aunt and grandmother were just doing what they thought was right?”
“I suppose, but who was it right for? Not for me. Maybe it was right and convenient for them, but I don’t see that it did anything good for me.”
“Why do you think that your marriage to Harry didn’t work out?”
“We were kids. We really didn’t know anything about the world or have any business getting married. The reason that it didn’t work out was that he wouldn’t stop sleeping with one of my best friends. He slept with her while I was pregnant with Ronald and he slept with her after I gave him another chance. He had promised me that he wouldn’t do it again. It didn’t work out because he didn’t want to be my husband.”
“Did you want to be his wife?”
“At first, it was the only thing in the world that I did want. Looking back, I can see that we never had a chance with each other.”
“Then you don’t blame him for breaking trust with you?”
“I did, but things changed as I grew older. I began to see things from a different perspective.”
“Why don’t you think that you are able to do that where the rest of your past is concerned?”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s because I just never found out what the truth was.”
“Why is the truth so important to you?”
“The truth is always important.”
“Haven’t you ever lied to protect someone?”
“Yes, but I never felt good about it.”
“But you did it anyway?”
“Is it possible that your family thought that they were doing that for you?”
“Because they saw how it haunted me.”
“Maybe they didn’t have any answers that would have taken your pain away, Marjorie.”
“I don’t think that they cared about my pain. I think that they were interested in their images of themselves and how they changed history to make those images comfortable.”
“Is that so bad?”
“For me it was.”
“Marjorie, I think that the only way that you’re ever going to be able to work through these problems and get on with your life is to realize that nothing terrible is going to happen to you if you let your past go. I think that you have to let the stuff about your family go and I think that you have to let go of the stuff about your son.”
There was a flash of anger and hurt in Marjorie’s face. She flinched like she was slapped by his words. She looked straight into his face. Her eyes were shining dark and determined and angry. “How can you say that to me? You of all people! How can you say that to me after everything that I’ve told you?”
“It’s because of what you’ve told me that I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no other way for you.”
“I can’t accept that, Dr. Bork.”
“Unfortunately, my dear, I don’t think that you have any other choice.”
Marjorie wrote out her check slowly. “I think that I’d like to take some time to sort things out. Perhaps it would be better if I didn’t come back for a while.”
“Of course that’s your decision, but I think that you’re making a mistake.”
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate everything that you’ve tried to do to help me. I just don’t think that I can follow your advice about this.”
“There’s no law that says that you have to follow my advice as a pre-requisite to getting therapy.”
“I just need time to sort through things, that’s all.”
“I really wish you well in your search, Marjorie.”
As he watched her walk to her car, he wondered if he would see her again. Her story was sad and pathetic but she was somehow intriguing and he wanted to help her to overcome the agoraphobia.
For the fifth consecutive day, Marjorie sat in The Newark Public Library scanning issues of the 1929 Newark Evening News. At first the librarianhad given her admonitions about tying up the microfilm machine for so many hours at a time, but Marjorie had seemed so in need of the task and so persistent that by the end of the fifth day, the librarian was making small talk with her and stopped questioning her about monopolizing the machine. Although Marjorie has made a large number of copies and had taken copious notes on other articles, it was clear that she was not a professional researcher or writer.
Her area of interest concerned the robbery and murder of a jeweler and local hero named Morris Gold. Morris had obtained notoriety by knocking down and managing to hold on to a man who had attempted to kill the Governor of New Jersey. After firing several errant shots at the Governor, the would-be assassin fled down Market Street waving his pistol in front of him. Morris had come out of his jewelry store to investigate the noise and, in a moment of courageous reflex, subdued the criminal by throwing his rather portly body in the fleeing man’s path. The man screamed and cursed and flailed and tried to kick Morris off, but the jeweler wouldn’t let go and soon the police caught up to the scene. Morris was a hero. The President of the United States even sent him a commendation for bravery.
It wasn’t long after the incident that Morris had his first affair. She wasn’t an especially pretty woman, but she loved cheap jewelry and did things in the back room that Morris would never have dreamed asking his wife to do. It was more of a regular visit than a romance. The two of them never went anywhere together and there were never any promises made by either one that suggested that things could be more than they were.It continued for about a year. There were only two misunderstandings between them. Morris didn’t know that his mistress was also involved with a young man and she didn’t realize how cheap the trinkets that he gave her actually were.
Eileen’s life was not a particularly good one and times were not easy in 1929 Newark. When her brother found out that his younger sister was getting a reputation, he began to slap her around, and when her mother told her that her brother was right to try to beat the devil out of her, she decided to leave home. She took the secret box of gifts that Morris had given to her to a pawnshop with intentions of getting enough money to set up an apartment and convincing her boyfriend Larry that, even though he was Jewish and she was not, they could make a life together.
The pawnbroker only used his jewel glass on the first couple of pieces. Then he began to toss her treasures around in the box with a look of growing disdain. When he offered her fifteen dollars for everything, she was outraged. With a cold and angry pride, she told the charlatan that she had no intention of being cheated by him and that there was no shortage of honest pawn brokers in the city. After the next shop, she realized what Morris had done.
When Eileen and Morris had their confrontation, it was less about passion and betrayal and more about economics. After making sure that his shop was empty, she spoke with a loud and angry entrance. She screamed at Morris chanting the prices that she had been offered for her box of jewelry and banging the box on the counter to emphasize the insult of each offer.
Morris said, “Why are you trying to sell my gifts to you?”
“I need the money because men like you are lousy bastards,” hollered Eileen.
Morris looked out the door and window of his store front. He was nervous and sweating.
“Perhaps it is better if you don’t come back here anymore,” he said regretfully.
“And suppose I tell your cow of a wife what has been happening?”
Morris smiled ruefully. “She’d never believe you.”
Holding up her box and crying, Eileen said, “What about these?”
“My wife has never seen this junk and wouldn’t recognize it,” said Morris. “I’m a family man who spends all my evenings at home. I am very well thought of in this community. My wife has no reason to suspect anything about me.”
Eileen saw that she was defeated. She blubbered that she would go into the back room and do anything that he wanted her to do if he would give her enough money to rent an apartment and get started. Morris said that he didn’t think so. Eileen continued to cry. Morris told her that he was sorry for her troubles and that she was a good kid. Then he asked her to leave.
Eileen went to look for Larry. It was going to be a tricky thing because there was no way that she could tell him what she had been doing with Morris, but she wanted somebody to hurt the two timing jeweler and make him pay for what he had taken from her.
Larry and Eileen had a strange relationship. He was a first generation immigrant whose parents hardly spoke any English. Larry had been able to fool them and the rest of the family into thinking that he was going to school when the truth was that he was hanging around with the street gangs and getting a useful education. There were plenty of possibilities for a guy like himself and Larry knew that it would only be a matter of time until he caught the right person’s eye. He dressed sharply and forced himself to speak English without the slightest trace of an accent.
The problem with Eileen was that she wasn’t Jewish. That meant that neither one of their families would want anything to do with the other. Larry saw the situation as a cloud with a silver lining. It was true that they couldn’t get married, but it was also true that it gave him a great argument for talking her into doing whatever he wanted her to do.
Eileen was an exciting girl. Her older sisters were wild and one of them had gone to jail, while the other was involved in the rackets in a big time way. Larry was sure that Eileen knew the score of what went on between them. He knew that she was sweet for him and that if he worked things right, that in the end she would be able to help him get where he wanted to go.
The story that Eileen told Larry was a complete work of imagination. She told him that her mother had gone to the jeweler with the last of their family heirlooms and that Morris had stolen them and replaced them with junk. She told him that Morris was denying that he had ever seen an expensive cameo that had been a wedding gift for her mother and father. She told him that the only way that she was going to be able to get what she deserved for her mother was for Larry to go to the jewelry store and shame Morris in front of his wife.
Larry immediately identified the situation as the break that he had been looking for. If he did this favor for Eileen’s family, word would get around that he was someone to be taken seriously. It wasn’t that easy for a nineteen year old kid to be taken seriously. But there was one point that needed clarification. “Does your sister Dorothy know about what happened?” said Larry.
Eileen hadn’t expected this kind of question. She thought fast. “My mother doesn’t approve of the way that my sisters are living. She doesn’t want them to know how bad things have gotten for us and she is ashamed to tell them now.” The look on Larry’s face told her that he really didn’t buy her explanation. She began to panic. She could see the whole plan starting to fall apart. She started to cry. “Larry, I wasn’t telling you the whole truth. I took the cameo without telling my mother anything. I wanted to set up an apartment so that you and I could be together without anybody having the right to say anything about it. I was going to get a job and keep the apartment going.”
Larry smiled. That made more sense and he liked the idea of having an apartment where he could stop in and see Eileen whenever he wanted to be with her. He told her that a couple of his friends and him were going to pay Morris a visit at his house and that they were going to come back with at least two hundred dollars for her. He said that he would have to pay the guys twenty-five dollars each to make it worth their time, but that one hundred and fifty dollars would be more than enough to set up an apartment.
Larry decided to case the jewelry shop and get an opportunity to eyeball Morris before deciding what to do. He went in on the pretext of needing a new watch. Morris Gold was bigger than Larry imagined him to be and older too. The sign on the shop store said that it would close at 7pm. As far as Larry could tell, there was only a lock on the front door, no alarm. That told Larry that there must be a safe in the back that Morris used to store the good stuff. Larry knew that Morris Gold’s jewelry shop was famous for diamond brooches and gold bands, the kind of items that would only be brought out for certain customers. Larry also knew about Morris’ recent notoriety and how it had improved his business. The more he thought about it, the more that he became convinced that he wanted to take the jeweler for everything that he had.
He watched Morris close up his shop and followed him as he made his way down Market Street. Larry noticed the number of people with whom Morris exchanged greetings. The right way to do it was to get into the store and clean out the old bastard’s safe.
That night he explained the new plan to Eileen. She said that she didn’t care if they robbed his whole store and that she had seen the safe in the back room and that during the day it was left open.
“How’d you see that?” asked Larry.
“He said that he wanted to show me where the cameo was going to be kept so that I wouldn’t worry. I didn’t realize until we got back there that he was just he was just looking for an excuse to put his hands on me.”
‘You let that fat slob touch you?” Larry’s voice was angry and dark.
“I didn’t let him,” said Eileen. “He just did it, that was all. I made believe that I didn’t feel his hand and then he took it away.”
“I need to teach him a lesson for you, Eileen.”
“Larry this ain’t about that. Just get the money and get the hell out of there without a hitch.’
That night they got a room at the Military Park Hotel. Larry was becoming more and more impressed by Eileen and she knew that after not going home all night that she had stepped over a line that she couldn’t cross again.
Louis and Charlie were two guys that Larry trusted more than other people that he knew. They were also two guys who had guns and were reliable. It didn’t take long to work out the details of the plan. Charlie and Larry were still living at home, but Louis had his own place. They could bring Eileen over to Louis’ room and then beat it back there by different routes after the job was finished.
Splitting a bottle of whiskey, the four of them sat around a small table while they waited for it to be time to go. Larry saw the way that his two friends looked at Eileen. If only she’d been Jewish. He thought for an instant, but then decided that this was no time for that kind of stuff. This was his plan, his woman, his gang and it was going to his night.
At first, the job went smoothly. They walked in on Morris while he still had the safe open. Larry smacked him in his fat gut with the butt of his gun. Then he brought his gun up to the jeweler’s mouth and told him that he would love to shoot him through his chins. Louis and Charlie cleaned out the safe and the register. They were almost frightened by the fortune that they found. There was more in cash and in merchandise than the three of them put together had seen in their lives. Morris seemed too frightened to move.
If it hadn’t been for his act of heroism, he probably would have remained that way, but his eye caught the letter of commendation from the president that Morris had framed and hung on the wall. His mind recalled the accolades that had been heaped upon him about his bravery and courage. The instinct gripped him once again, and he tried to make a move to grab Larry’s gun, but Morris moved too slowly and Larry was too nervous. The shot splattered the jeweler’s brain.
The three men watched Morris Gold’s body slide down the wall and stared for a shocked instant at the smear of blood. Then they panicked. Forgetting the plan and holding the bags of cash and jewelry in plain sight, they ran down the street together. Larry, terrified by the feel of the hot gun, threw the weapon into an alley. Somehow the men made it back to the room where Eileen was waiting, but it was no good. People had seen them. Within a few minutes, they split up the take and abandoned the apartment.
Later that night, Larry and Eileen stole a car and headed for Massachusetts. Louis and Charlie were arrested within a couple of days. They were tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Several months later, Eileen reappeared. She was pregnant. Larry was never seen again, although the newspapers did refer to an unidentified man who had actually committed the murder of Morris Gold.
Marjorie was tired and the library was about to close. What a way to learn about your parents, she thought. In reality, she wasn’t even sure of how much of the newspaper stories were accurate. Her aunts and grandmother had resisted telling her anything for years. What was not in the newspaper stories, she had filled in with her imagination.
They had told her that he mother died of cancer and now she had a death certificate from the State which said that wasn’t true. They had told her that her mother loved her very much, but Marjorie had no recollection of those expressions of love. Every memory of her mother was accompanied by a shadowy parade of surly men that were always around her and always telling her to hurry up. Her family told her that Larry died when she was a baby, but why should she believe that any more than the rest of lies?
Over the years, Marjorie had constructed a fantasy about her father and she kept the belief that he was alive somewhere deep in her heart. The need to find him was an irregular but persistent passion that she had felt forever.
Up Market Street, passed the block that used to contain Morris Gold’s jewelry store and down what used to be called High Street was the Hall of Records. When Marjorie got around to telling the librarian that she was interested in documents surrounding a trial, the librarian told her about the archives in the Hall. It was there, for the first time, that she actually saw his name in print.
When she saw it in the clear flowing penmanship that was used to record proceedings in 1930, her hands began to shake. She looked at the paper for a long time and then held it to her face and began to cry. It was the first official document, other than the census, that supported the existence of the man. The newspapers had never named the unidentified gunman but there was the name, Larry Bernstein, alias Larry Fischer, alias Larry Borenstein, alias Larry Green suspected of murder and never apprehended. Now she was sure. Why else would they have all lied to her if there had been nothing to hide?
Things began popping into her memory with small explosions. This was why there had been no trace of the Fischers. This was way there was no record of the death of Larry Fischer. This was why the grave was a phony. She hadn’t been named after a piano company. It had been a fake name that he sometimes used. She wondered if they had done that so that he would be able to find her one day. This also explained why there was no burial receipt for the body. She had spent all of this time searching with the wrong name.
That evening Marjorie poured over her collection of dated Newark phone books, looking under the name Bernstein. There had been pages and pages of them. When her husband came home from work and found that she had again become oblivious to time and food, he told her that he couldn’t take her spending all of her time doing this anymore. He told her that nothing in the present seemed to exist for her and that half the time he thought that it was 1930 in his house. He screamed that he had gone through this search with her on many other occasions and that she always came up empty and more depressed than she had been when she started. Finally, with his face red and his arms waving, he said, “How is it that you can travel down to Newark and crawl around the floors in the Hall of Records without any help but you can’t seem to get yourself to the Grand Union to buy my dinner?”
George’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Marjorie felt too close to something to be distracted by George or anything else now. She looked up from the phone books. “I guess it’s because this is more important to me than your dinner is. I don’t expect you to understand and I think that we both know where you’d really like to be and what you’d like to be doing.”
George threw up his hands and walked towards the door. He called back over his shoulder that he would be back after he’d gotten himself something to eat. That night he told his girlfriend that he’d decided to leave his wife for good.
There were thirty-seven names under Bernstein in Marjorie’s most recent Newark phone directory. She started with those close to her old neighborhood and then worked her way out. She continued to make calls the next morning.
“Hello, I’m very sorry to bother you but I’m trying to locate a Mr. Larry Bernstein. I haven’t seen him for many, many years but it is very important that I speak to him. Do you have anyone in your family with that name? He would be about seventy-five years old by now, I think.”
On the two occasions when she had gotten affirmative replies, her heart began to thump with incredibly wild anticipation, but something had always come along as a disqualifier. She ended each of those conversations with her mouth trembling and by being able to choke out, “No that couldn’t be him. Thank you very much.”
After she called the last name, she felt very alone. George had been right. This had only lead to another dead end. She got up from the telephone and wandered through the rooms trying to determine what she should do next. The following day, she drove back to the Newark Library.
When she and George had left Newark, they had declared that except for visits to family and some of the really good meat stores and bakeries there was no reason for them to return to the city. And yet she had been driving its streets every day for weeks.
The librarian smiled when she saw Marjorie. The woman had become such a fixture at the microfilm machine that she had missed seeing her there in the last few days. The librarian looked down at her watch. There really wasn’t enough time left in the day to start the lengthy kind of work that Marjorie did, but she would assist as much as she could. “Did you have any luck with the Hall of Records?”
Marjorie smiled sadly. “I don’t seem to have very much luck at all.”
The librarian glanced at her watch for Marjorie’s benefit and said, “Is there something that I can get for you? We are going to be closing shortly.”
Without really thinking, Marjorie blurted, “Do you know anything about the Jewish Community of Newark?”
“What is it that you’re interested in? That kind of information would probably be located in the New Jersey Historical section.”
“I don’t think that’s the kind of thing that I need,” said Marjorie.
The tone of defeat in her voice touched the librarian who had watched her struggle to learn how to use the machine and then sit for hours in a neck stiffening position, scanning through issue after issue of forgotten newspapers. “The only thing that I know is that when they left, they left without a trace.”
“When they left?” Marjorie picked up her head for the first time.
“Well, you know how it is with this city. Most of the good people pulled out a long time ago.”
Marjorie’s face brightened. She thanked the librarian for all her kindness and shook her hand. Then she hurried back to her car. When they left. That was it! Her father’s family had left the city. Probably they hadn’t gone too far! She hadn’t gone too far. They could be in West Orange, Verona or Livingston. When she got home, Marjorie went straight for her suburban Essex phone book. There were three pages dedicated to the name Bernstein. She began to make the calls.
When George came home and found his wife still sitting at the table with the open phone book, he had to try to stop her. “Marjorie, I know how much this means to you, but don’t you see what you are doing? You’re closing yourself off from everything around you. It’s almost as if you were the person that disappeared.”
Marjorie felt punched in the stomach by the last sentence. “I’m doing what I think I have to do, George.” Then she began to dial the next number, but she saw that her hands were shaking. Then she heard the voice in her head that always preceded one of her spells. What do you think that you’re doing? Something very bad is going to happen and it’s all going to be your fault because you won’t give up on this foolishness! Marjorie put the phone down. She felt like she was going to pass out. There was tightness in her throat. She began to gasp for air. Her mind was out of control. Had she already done the thing that was going to cause awful things to happen? She lit a cigarette and took a Librium. She needed to calm down. She peered out of the kitchen into the room that George had retreated off to. It seemed very far away and dangerous. She was sure that she couldn’t make herself go that far. “My God, what’s happening to me?” she said. She was actually afraid to leave the kitchen and go into her own living room. She was afraid to get up from the table. She was afraid to speak. She was afraid to breathe.
When Dr. Bork’s answered his phone, he could barely make out Marjorie’s voice whispering on the other end of the line. “Doctor Bork, something very bad is happening to me and I need to see you. Could I please come over?”
Bork heard the distress. He had almost expected that something like this would happen sooner or later. “Can you come over right now?”
“Yes,” said Marjorie. “Thank you so much.”
She put down the phone and looked back into the living room. It was still so very far away. The door was on the other side of the room and beyond the door was nothing that she knew. She got up slowly and moved from the back of the chair to the counter. Her legs felt very heavy. She moved to the doorway. She was beginning to sweat. “George,” she called. There was no answer. Then she heard the shower running from the upstairs bathroom. He was getting ready to go out, she thought. She moved back to the phone and dialed her son’s number. There was no answer. She was crying when she put the phone down. He was never there when she needed him anymore. Then she had an idea. If she called a cab she would be able to go. She would know what was waiting for her outside of the door. She could picture the cab in her mind as she made her way back through the living room. She had gone to Dr. Bork’s office by cab before. Yes, she could do that.
“Marjorie, it’s good to see you again.” Dr. Bork extended his hand and guided the patient into his foyer.
“Dr. Bork, I’m terribly sorry to be bothering you like this. I don’t know what came over me.”
“Why don’t we just go into my office and talk about it,” said Bork.
When Marjorie looked around, she saw that the office still gave her a secure feeling. Her breathing had returned to its normal rate and she no longer felt like she was going to feint.
“How have you been doing, Marjorie?”
She recounted the story of her search and then she told him about her argument with George and the effect that it had on her. When she was finished, she was sitting stiffly, waiting to hear what he would have to say. She expected him to admonish her for going overboard, but he didn’t say anything. He filled his pipe and lit it with a long, wooden match. “Doctor, do you think that I’m having a breakdown?”
Dr. Bork tipped back in his chair and smiled. “What I think you are having is a breakthrough, Marjorie.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I’ve heard is not the story of a woman who is unable to go to the Grand Union. I’ve been listening to the amazing story of a persistent survivor who had let her determination and instincts lead her towards what she thought was right in face of overwhelming odds.”
“But Dr. Bork, I wasn’t even able to walk into my parlor tonight.”
“You got yourself here when you needed to though, didn’t you?”
“I took a cab.”
“But you did what was necessary for you to get what you needed for yourself. Don’t you see that is one of the truly important things that happened to you tonight? Your son wasn’t there to help you. Your husband wasn’t there for you. Your aunt is no longer alive, but you were still able to get yourself here.”
“But what happened to me?”
“I can’t tell you for sure, but I can tell you what I think is going on. I think that George inadvertently enunciated one of your deepest subconscious fears, the fear that somehow you would disappear too.” Marjorie felt another jolt inside of her, even at the re-mention of the words. Bork noticed her body stiffen and saw that her face looked panicked. “I think that it was still difficult for you to hear me say those words. The truth is, however, that you’re here because you want to be here. Look at your past, Marjorie. Your grandmother was always afraid to let you do anything because of what she’d seen happen to her own children. She was determined to make sure that you weren’t lost to her as well. What she did in order to accomplish that was to try to scare you to death about the outside world. She didn’t do it as an act of meanness. It was out of fear. Your aunts went along with her, probably out of guilt that they felt about what they’d done with their own lives. This search that you say has haunted you has probably given you the strength to attempt things that you would have otherwise never tried to do. Don’t you realize how incredible it is that a young girl would have the gumption to go to a prison and then later to meet with a convicted murderer? Your story about the last few weeks in the library is simply amazing. Of course the librarian wanted to help you! You are someone who is worthy of being helped.”
The medicine of praise was having a tremendously restorative effect on Bork’s patient. “Do you think that I’ll ever find out what happened to my father?”
“I don’t know, Marjorie, but I’m sure that somewhere along the way you will discover an appreciation of yourself.”
“I feel like I’m at a dead end.”
“You’ve felt that way before.”
“I seem to keep going back to old newspapers.”
“Perhaps you should try a more contemporary approach.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Perhaps the person who could help you is still out there to be found.”
Then Marjorie understood what Bork was talking about.
One year later, in the Sunday edition of the Star-Ledger, the following letter appeared in the editorial section under the subhead, Search Runs Into Stone Wall:
I have been trying to obtain a death certificate for my father for the last several years now to no avail. These are the reasons.
I started going and writing to all the department of health offices for each county in New Jersey to ask to search through their records. Each name that I have researched has cost me four dollars. At the time of my father’s presumed death (July 3, 1930) he used aliases, so it has therefore cost me several hundred dollars and I still have not found a death certificate. I have contacted the Department of Vital Statistics in Trenton on several occasions, and the state registrar refuses me admission to check the records for July 1930. He claims that all such records are closed to the public. I have explained to him that the reason that I wish to be allowed to look myself is that I am more likely to recognize the alias.
Also, in the last year, I have been in contact with The United States Department of Justice. The Census Bureau, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, The United States Department of Defense, The Department of Health and Human Services, The Letter Forwarding Service of the Bureau of Data Processing, The United States Department of Commerce, The United States House of Representatives, The Social Security Administration, The United States Army, and The United States Navy. Additionally, I have searched the death records for the states of New York and Pennsylvania.
I would ask at this time that someone come forward and attempt to be of assistance to me. I am not willing to give up the search to discover the fate of my father, but if there is anyone who can give me information relating to the life or death of Larry Bernstein of Newark, New Jersey, please contact the editor of this paper and he can put you in touch with me.
Bloomfield, New Jersey
When the Family Location and Legal Services agent contacted Marjorie some three days later, she was genuinely surprised. The letter to the editor had been her final idea. Tracing the family name through the synagogue records for the temple which had been located in Marjorie’s old neighborhood, the representative found the Bernstein family living two towns away from Marjorie.
On a cool April evening, Marjorie had her first conversation with a member of her father’s family. The woman’s name was Stephanie Weiss. After being contacted by her rabbi, Mrs. Weiss agreed to speak with Marjorie.
“Mrs. Weiss, do you know what happened to my father?”
“Mrs. Bombasco, I agreed to speak with you at the urging of Rabbi Feldman, but I must tell you that I have no reason to believe that my uncle Larry was ever married or ever had a child.”
“How old is your uncle now?” said Marjorie, holding her breath.
“Well, if he were still alive, he would be in his seventies, I would imagine.”
“What happened to him?”
“Something very bad, I think. We were never allowed to talk about him as children. I think he did something very wrong. Anyway, I know that my father and my grandfather arranged for him to go back to Poland right around 1931, or so.”
“Then what happened?” said Marjorie.
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “You know what happened in Poland, don’t you?”
Then Marjorie began to tell the story of her life and her search. The woman was astonished. “I do remember some talk of Larry being involved with a gentile girl, but I never heard her name mentioned. I do have a brother who might know more about it than I do. He was older, you know?”
“Would you mind giving me his number?”
“I don’t think that I should do that, but I would be willing to call him and to tell him about you. I’ll get back to you in a short while.”
That night Marjorie waited for the return phone call but it never came. She waited by the phone through the next day and the next. Then she called Stephanie Weiss back. The woman seemed very frightened. “My brother was very upset with me when I called him. He has refused to have anything to do with this. What happened was all so very long ago, my dear, and I just don’t know how I can help you. Those were very bad times that everyone would just like to forget.”
Marjorie pleaded but the woman excused herself and hung up. Was this another lie? What was there to do now?
One week later, Marjorie’s old friend the librarian smiled when she saw her standing at her desk with a request form. Marjorie retuned the smile and asked, “Could you please direct me to a section that would contain information about the Holocaust?”