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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

When Old People Go Missing

My cousin is missing. He isn’t where I left him.

There’s a coffeehouse I visit as soon as I come to Australia. It’s easier to find my cousin that way than banking on him hearing his cell phone or being at home. He likes to stay active — he wakes up about 4:00 A.M., hits the streets for his morning stroll and first coffee, then spends most of the day at the coffeehouse, sitting at the tables, talking with his friends (mostly old men) and the strangers who say hi (mostly young women).

He’s easy to find there, until he isn’t.

Čapek is my grandfather’s first cousin. He was born around 1924 in Berehovo, a small village currently in the Ukraine, near the Hungarian border. In the years before he was born and over the course of his life there, until he turned 15 and was moved to a concentration camp, it belonged to the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and possibly Romania. Even today, the town’s few streets on Google Maps have alternating Cyrillic, Hungarian, and Czech names.

Then the Holocaust happened. The town got cleaned out. He spent most of the war in Buchenwald, a work camp — the entire rest of his family was killed; he was a teenage boy, he could help the Germans.

After the war, he was taken to Switzerland to get better. Fortunately, he had tuberculosis and had been malnourished enough so that he couldn’t eat solid food. The ex-prisoners who could were fed regular food, and their bodies couldn’t handle the overload. Most died. He spent four years in a hospital, then traveled to Paris, where many survivors ended up, trying to find each other and piece together what was left of their lives. He didn’t find anyone. From there, he boarded a boat to Australia.

My wife’s grandfather also spent much of the war in Buchenwald. He also ended up in Australia. My wife’s grandfather married the rabbi’s only daughter, had five children, a number of grandchildren, and counted close to a hundred descendants before his death last year. My cousin, one barracks over from him in the camp, never married. For 20 years he was a tram conductor. He collected fares, told jokes, let anyone pass who forgot their fares — or said they did — and just basically became friends with everyone he met.

He lives in a tiny apartment just above Acland St., which is the St. Mark’s Place/Melrose Blvd./South St./hip and trendy cafe-culture capital in Melbourne. I know his address, but there’s no point in me going there. “If I’m home, I’m asleep,” he once told me.

As usual, my first morning here I just show up at the coffeehouse — it’s right in an arcade, one of those European-style malls with stained-glass windows and wrought iron that you walk through and you think you’re in an old movie. The cafe has two heavy wooden tables right in the center of the arcade.

Most mornings he’s there with a kind German and a grouchy Hungarian, shooting the shit with each in their respective languages. Today he’s not.

This is not alone enough to sound a warning bell. But my mom has been calling his cell phone and getting no answer, which is also not alarming on its own, but (a) it’s been happening for weeks, and (b) my mom has been nonstop asking me about finding him, which is hitting my anxiety on the head a little too exactly.

His friends from the cafe are also not there. Neither, I soon discover, is the cafe itself. The inside awning is still there, but inside the place all the shelves are empty, the kitchen is in boxes, everything is dust and shadow.

I’d imagined a hundred times over the moment I came back, talking to the barista. I’ve met him over fifty times, talked to him whenever I visited my cousin, known him, weirdly, for over ten years, although the time we’ve spent actually speaking would probably only add up to a couple minutes. But when you’re close to an old person, at a certain point you begin to envision — to fantasize, almost — how you will find out they’re dead. Or, worse, that something terrible’s happened to them, that they aren’t in the peaceful dreamless sleep of death but are somewhere unknown suffering through something and if we only knew how to find them, if we only paid them more attention, we’d be able to help them.

This happened with my grandmother in her nursing home, where they took excellent care of her, and where my parents visited her every day. How we’re not a part of their lives always, how what we mean by “their lives” is such a fragile and unguaranteed thing.

I run down the street. I stop in every place on that street he went — the bank, the other coffee shop, the early-bird special lunch place, the bakery where he used to fry donuts in the morning, as a favor to the owners or as an actual job I was never able to figure out. He just loved hanging out there and they gave him something to do. I’ve been in the country less than 24 hours. Just an evening, a sleepless night, and now this early morning. Except for the eateries there’s nothing else open. I’ve been searching for him for an hour and it’s still only 8:00 in the morning. The world is whirling around me; I’ve crossed the same street a dozen times, I’m no longer being careful about the direction of the cars. I’m crying openly. An old woman asks me what’s wrong. I ask her if she knows Čapek. I describe him — short, hunched over, bald, mustache, a psoriatic scar on the top of his head (I feel guilty saying this to someone else, but it will help, I tell myself, it will help), likes to wear one of those dinky Outback hats like in Crocodile Dundee.

The old woman blinks at me. Crocodile Dundee? It was from the ’80s, I tell myself, that counts as old these days. She should know what I’m talking about.

There is a supermarket called Woolworths. My only association is the dinettes from the 1950s American South, the restaurant where they wouldn’t let black people eat with white people at the counter. They’ve never had that problem here; nobody knows a Woolworths is for anything except groceries. I’ve never seen Čapek in here, but figure it can’t hurt. And I hit pay dirt. One of the self-checkout supervisors remembers him. She says he was always the nicest person in the world, but a few times he’d thrown fits, yelled at people. She thinks he was having Alzheimer’s fits. She thinks they took him to a nursing home, but she doesn’t know for sure and she doesn’t know which one. She’s apologetic and a little accusatory. You didn’t know they took him? What kind of relationship do you have to him?

I’m his cousin, I say. But I don’t live anywhere near here.

I get back to my in-laws’, feeling more alienated than ever. The kids are up. I make sure they’re okay but I can’t play with them, I have something to do, and they’re confused — we’re on vacation, isn’t my work in another country? But I get to work.

The only thing I can think of doing is, I search for a list of elderly facilities in the area. I start calling them in Google Maps order, the closest first. It’s about to be a Jewish holiday tonight. I’m only there for a week. If I lose today, I’ve lost 3 out of my 7 days in the country.

I start calling down the list and find two things very quickly: That every nursing home uses an annoying voicemail system, and that none of them can tell me if he’s here because of patient privacy. But what, I ask, if he doesn’t know how to tell them that I’m a legitimate relative? What if he doesn’t recognize me anymore? I hang up from the fourth place, feeling every bit of the queasiness I managed to avoid on the plane seeping into me. The phone rings. It’s my father-in-law. He suggests I call the local Jewish bureau. They might not be quick, but they must have resources for situations like this. He’s the only adult who was awake during my search, and he has the kind of mind that’s perfect for this. He sees everything like a puzzle. Once you see problems like puzzles, you can solve them.

I call and tell the very kind receptionist what’s wrong and give her all my information. She says it’s no problem and she’ll be able to find him in a week, maybe two. I thank her and slip off the phone.

Then I call the fifth place. “Hi,” I say fast, “can you put me through to Čapek Roth’s room?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think there’s anyone here by that name,” the man on the phone says. “Are you quite sure he’s here?”

No, but that doesn’t stop me. I try the fourth place again, then the third. Then the second.

And the receptionist who picks up this time tells me he’s just gone down for a nap.

The next morning is the first morning of the holiday. I wait outside the electric doors till someone walks through. I squeeze past them so I don’t use electricity, and then I get Čapek’s room number and take the stairs.

And there he is. Sitting upright in a bed, swathed by white paper-thin bedsheets, and, disconcertingly, without his mustache, which I don’t realize till he lowers his coffee from his mouth. Which somehow makes up for the lack of mustache, because coffee is the ultimate normalizer.

And there’s that moment where I’m not sure what is real and what isn’t, and if it’s really him because I can only see half his face with the coffee mug up, and scariest of all, whether he remembers me or not, but then he lowers the mug and says, as chill as if he’s back at the cafe and making jokes in German, “Matthue! How did you get here?” and just hearing the syllables of my name from his mouth, just having myself as the point of reference for him, means that even if everything isn’t okay, it’s still okay for now.

And I hug him, which I’ve never done before, and feels a little violating because he’s in bed and weaker than he used to be and he can’t really do anything about it, but also feels a little bit like what we need. And I laugh, and I say to him, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” And then I tell him.


Photo: Lost Old Man by Alexander Kluge.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Fox in the Ruins

There was a fox in the ruins that morning.

Yosh spotted it first in the corner of his eye, a blur of red and teeth. He recognized it immediately. He had read about foxes in books.

His father, however, had laughed when he’d seen it, and ripped off his holo to see better. “A fox!” he cried, almost jubilant. “That’s remarkable. I never thought I’d see one of those again.”

“Aren’t they dangerous?” Yosh asked, moving closer to his father. For the most part, the ruins were abandoned, but he often thought he saw movements coming from the million layered shadows that seemed to lurk in every corner, especially as the day grew short.

“They were, a long time ago,” his father said. “They might still be now. But we’re dangerous, too.”

He stopped to turn over what might be a large tin of food, or even a refridge, but it was an empty husk, crumbling to pieces between his fingers.

“It’s a good sign for other reasons, Yosh. If there are foxes, that means that there’s food. And if that poor animal’s still alive, she’s probably more afraid of us than we are of her. We’ll give her more trouble than we’re worth. But, foxes! This is sure to be news back in the enclave.”

He pulled himself over a pile of rubble and through a smashed-out hole in the wall. Yosh, scampering up the pile, followed him. He took one last lingering glance behind himself before disappearing into the building. The fox was staring back at them, perched atop a mound of collapsed bricks and fraying metal, as if daring them to give chase. After a long moment of stillness, its ears pitched forward and its nose in the air—during which Yosh was afraid it might lunge into action, teeth bared—the fox gave a tired yawn, its tongue lolling out, and trotted down the far side of the heap of trash.

It was almost sad, Yosh thought. The fox looked so royal, so clean and deadly. It should be out in a meadow, running at top speeds. And it, like them, was reduced to poking around the ruins.

Still, Yosh’s father had laughed. And his father knew more than anyone else in Zebulon, the enclave where they lived. That was why he was first appointed Scavenger. He was almost as wise as the Ones Who Watch. Yosh trusted his father more than anything—and so he had to believe that, for one reason or another, there was something good about seeing that fox. Maybe his father was laughing because he knew the fox had no chance, that Yosh and his father would find any food before she would. Or maybe he was laughing because the fox was still alive, and she’d made it this long…and maybe, just maybe, Yosh and his father and the rest of Zebulon would make it, too.

Yosh took one last glance over his shoulder at the mound of trash. The fox was long gone…and, he realized, he should probably get going, too.


Most days, Yosh spent his time running alone around the shelter and in the bush on the outskirts of Zebulon. Sometimes his father brought him outside the enclave, past the bush, looking for new holes to venture into and digging them a little bit deeper, trying to find out if anyone had reached the bottom yet, or if there was still something of value to be unearthed.

Yosh’s father Scavenged nearly every day in the outer reaches of the enclave. Most people rarely ventured outside of their tiny shelters, scared or suspicious of the world outside, but exploring the world outside Zebulon was Yosh’s father’s job. He was the Scavenger. He knew exactly what to look for, and he was big and strong enough to carry it back to the enclave, whether it was food, blankets, a TV or something else, and make sure it was divided fairly among the people. Sometimes there was a disagreement, or a scuffle, but as soon as Yosh’s father noticed, it ended. The people respected him.

This, Yosh knew, was a different way of saying they were scared of him.

Sometimes Yosh accompanied his father on his trips. They’d never gone too far away from the enclave. But you didn’t need to go far, his father said—just outside its borders, where the light of the Everlasting Fire could no longer reach, there were literally thousands of bunkers. Most of them were in ruins, having been picked over tens of times over again by marauders, bandits, and innocent people with growling stomachs, but virtually every empty shelter still contained something of value for Yosh’s father to carry home. Perhaps the contents of a metal shelf had been left, fallen behind a pantry against a crumbling wall, or sometimes it was tins of food. The marauders and bandits didn’t always know how to open them, but, said Yosh’s father with a twinkle in his eye, marauders and bandits didn’t have all of Zebulon depending on them.

“What about the other enclaves?” Yosh asked, lingering to sift through a hill of dirt and broken things, while he was out with his father one day.

“What other enclaves?” his father said quickly—and then he added, “Don’t dig through there, Yosh. I’ve torn up that stack a dozen times.”

“Well,” said Yosh, “surely there are other enclaves, right? Or else the Ones Who Watch would have nothing else to watch.”

The Ones Who Watch were a group of elders who swept through Yosh’s father’s enclave every full moon, on the night of the mootfire. They came to bring news of the greater world, to settle disputes, to survey what Yosh’s father had collected and to take a small share, usually nothing more than food for the next stage of their journey. The people in the enclave tolerated them, and made jokes and rude remarks when they weren’t around, but Yosh’s father always kept his silence. “They earn their keep,” was all he said.

It occurred to Yosh that his father thought of the Ones Who Watch much the same as the rest of the enclave thought of him: with equal measures admiration and fear.

Yosh’s father gave a laugh. It was brief and purposeful, just like everything else he did. “The Ones Who Watch will always have something to watch,” he said. “That is their business, and they make it so they will always be in business. Get your arm out of that crack, please, Yosh. I need some help with this refridge.”

Yosh’s arm was halfway down a crack in the cement trail outside. The trails had once been fixed in even, square sections, laid flat along the rows of shelters, but had long ago been ruptured and broken. Most of the squares were split into several jagged sections. Yosh had a theory that underneath them was a whole other city, identical to this one but for a subterranean roof instead of sky, and all the shelters there were fresh and unplundered, just like in the World That Was. If he reached far enough, Yosh thought he might uncover a pathway. As yet, Yosh was still not able to reach far enough.

“Sorry, Dad,” he called, withdrawing his arm. “I thought I saw some cans of tomato paste in there.”

He gave a glance inside the doorway, to where his father was already wandering, to see whether he would react. Tomato paste was in great demand. Yosh’s father used it, along with some other cans and kernels of food, to fashion something he called pizza—and when he made it, he made it in great quantity, and the whole enclave celebrated.

He laughed again. It was shorter, this time.

“You’re a funny little storyteller, Yosh,” he called out through the doorway. “I don’t know what you think you saw, but I’m sure it wasn’t that. Here, come inside and help me with this. There’s enough blankets here to clothe half the urchins in…”

He broke off suddenly. Yosh struggled to his feet, abandoning the crack for good, and ran inside to see what had silenced his father.

There was indeed a good supply of clothes—fresh and untouched, several drawers’ worth. It was the kind of reward they rarely found anymore, definitely not this close to their enclave. Clean, untouched and valuable.

The drawers sat behind Yosh’s father’s back, all but ignored now. He stood at a desk, staring in awe at a small silver globe, dirty and old, with flecks of rust adorning its crown.

Yosh didn’t want to sound immature, but he didn’t see what value an object like that could hold. It might be metal, but it wasn’t even a solid plank. It could barely help to barricade his sister’s ant farm, let alone their house.

“What is it?” he asked scornfully. “Some kind of food? Another device from the World That Was?”

“Not at all,” said his father, raising it up. Yosh could see that it wasn’t a globe at all. The metal shape only went down halfway on one side, then stopped in a sharp rim. It was more like a hat. Yosh’s father’s fingers danced along its rim appreciatively.

“I remember this well—as a matter of fact, it’s still plugged in. Here, Yosh. Think of a memory. Any memory.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Yosh. Or he started to, but he broke off as soon as the force of the machine hit him.

And then he was no longer alone in his mind.

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