Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Twist Of Noir 030 - Naomi Johnson


I felt an electric shock along my left forearm when I saw him. I had not seen him in many years but I knew him immediately. Age had not much changed him. His handsome face had haunted me, along with so many others. I never expected to see him again, had hoped he was long since dead, but here he was in Columbus, Ohio, of all places, browsing before the jeweler's display on High Street, on a suffocating August day in 1973.

The shock of seeing him, well-dressed and clearly well-fed, spun me back to the day I met him. I was an unmarried woman of 20, shy, thin, plain, with a dark cloud of hair, and I was both hungry and terrified. He spoke to me quite gently at first as he took my arm, then less kindly when I tried to pull away. And he flew into a rage when, as he was working on my arm, a little of my blood smeared across his knuckles. He was afraid, I think, that's what made him so angry. He was afraid that my blood would contaminate him somehow. I made a sign with my fingers to ward off evil. I learned it from a gypsy woman in my village and I made the sign often in those days. And he reached out, took my fingers as they made the sign and, quick as you please, he broke them. I fainted and when I came to, I was in another place altogether. I never saw him again until that summer afternoon in Columbus. I compared my memory to what I saw now and I was not mistaken. It was he.

For a minute, I could not think what to do but then he moved away from the window and crossed north of Broad Street and I found myself following him. I was afraid that he would hail a cab or get into a car and I would have no way to find him again. His name would be different now, of course. He might not even live in Columbus, he might just be here on some business. But I was lucky and he continued to walk and walk and, finally, we were out of the downtown rush and he turned left at a medical supply store onto the street leading to Goodale Park and a residential area made up of beautiful if slightly dilapidated Victorian homes.

My thoughts were still spinning as he approached one of the brick homes, mounted the steps and let himself in. He never looked back. You would think that with his past, he would always think to look behind him, something must be chasing him, but he never did. Such confidence, such arrogance! I felt a spurt of anger and it calmed my thoughts. Amazing. Here he was, after all this time, and he was living only blocks from my modest house near St. Francis Cathedral and the elementary school. Suddenly, without planning, without consciously deciding, I knew what I was going to do. I went to his door and knocked.

When he opened the door, I told him a story about my car breaking down and asked if I might use his telephone to call my nephew. He did not recognize me. I knew he wouldn’t and yet, I was a little disappointed. He glanced at the street but the lack of a stalled car didn’t seem to worry him. The sight of a small, work-worn fifty year old woman held no fear for him, I am sure. I was still dressed in the uniform required at the cafeteria where I worked, and the stains, the ill-fitting apron, the once white, now dirty nursing shoes, all must have been reassuringly lower working-class to him.

He waved me in impatiently, pointed at the telephone on a small table. I listened but heard no sound that might indicate anyone else was in the house with him. And what a beautiful home he had. Polished wainscoting in the parlor that set off lovely old wingback chairs, barrister cases filled with neatly arranged books, a small painting in the entryway that looked very much like the work of Cezanne. Other paintings, expensively framed, adorned the walls of the parlor. I shivered with controlled rage. How was it possible after what he had done that he should enjoy such beauty, such tranquility, in his home? He had done nothing to deserve any of it.

I dialed my own number and my nephew answered. Daniel was my only surviving family and was good enough to visit his old maid aunt on his vacation, bringing me gifts from the Holy Land and stories of life in his country.

“Daniel,” I said, “this is Anna. I am having problems with the car. Would you be good enough to come and get me? I am at -- .” I paused to get the address from my host and relayed it to Daniel, along with directions. Daniel had not spoken beyond saying hello. When he did speak he said, “Aunt Anna, you are somewhere you cannot talk freely?”

“Yes. Please hurry. You must think me very tiresome, but I wish you will come right away, yes? Mr. Gillespie in the yellow house will let you borrow his car if you tell him it is a favor to me.”

When I hung up the telephone, I turned to my host. He was seated in one of the wingback chairs and I said to him, “Thank you for letting me use your telephone. You have a lovely home. May I ask, what do you do?”

“I’m a professor at the university. I teach art history.”

“Yes? And you are an artist as well? Are some of these paintings your work?”

He was so proud of his possessions, and he began telling me about the various pictures. More about what other people said of his work than about the pictures themselves but I did not care. I was lost in memory, seeing again the revulsion on his face when he saw my blood on his knuckles, feeling the sharp pain of my bones snap under the pressure of his heavy hands. I shook off the memories when I heard a car pull up out front. I interrupted him and said, “Here is my nephew now.” I hurried to let Daniel in and quickly closed the door behind him. With a look, I warned him to be quiet, then took his hand and pulled him into the parlor where my host was now standing, looking concerned, perhaps even a little worried at this unexpected stranger in his house. Daniel has that effect on people.

Before he could raise a protest, I spoke. “Thank you for telling me about your paintings. I know you are an artist. I knew it before you opened the door to me. You see, I own one of your works. You might call it an ink drawing, yes? You gave it to me right before you broke my fingers.” I extended my left forearm, turning the inside up to show him the blue number he had etched into my arm in 1943. I felt Daniel go rigid next to me. “Forgive my bad manners. Please allow me to introduce my nephew, Daniel Aron. He is visiting me, you know, on his vacation. He lives in Israel now and has a very important job. He is with Mossad, you know this word, yes?”

Yes, I could see by how pale his face had become, by the sudden tic under his left eye, by the way he collapsed into his chair that he knew the word.

“Daniel,” I said, “this man is Franz Gerhardt, who gave me this wonderful work of art all those years ago. It has lasted the test of time as so many did not. How can we ever thank him?”

BIO: Naomi Johnson is a retired financial analyst with an unused degree in Criminology. She lives in Columbus, Ohio. Her friends deny all responsibilty.


Cormac Brown said...


Anonymous said...

I knew you were going someplace special when you mentioned your "village" in connection with High and Broad in Columbus. Just didn't expect to end up quite so suddenly in 1943 Nazi-land.

Reading this work reminds me of...
'Lovely to look at
Nice to hold
Drop it and break it
And to you it is sold' :)


Anonymous said...

Had me fooled until the end. Good work.

Unknown said...

Great flashbacks, I really like this one.