New stories, poems, and streams of consciousness will be posted as they emerge. You are invited to read and enjoy. Or not.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Business as unusual.

Lisa No Legs
A Short Story

Everyone in the room should have been, like the central characters in a Japanese tea ceremony, well steeped in the formal requirements of the moment. Phil noticed that indeed, on the surface, everything seemed calm and normal. Underneath his Armani jacket, though, a thin pool of hot, slippery sweat had formed; other lagoons of perspiration appeared in the palm of each hand as he settled himself into the conference room chair. His sense of unease was vague and peripheral, akin to an early morning fog waiting to thicken and overwhelm a coastline.

As head writer of the creative and content treatment compressed between his fingers, it was his task to make that morning's presentation to the prospective client. He had been through the motions of this task countless times in the past, on each occasion putting forth the distillation of his ideas for a promotional video which a would-be client wished to create for one of their new products. Today, as always, he would be expected to embrace the concepts contained within the proposal like a good parent, proudly claiming ownership of their lustrous brilliance, convincing the always dubious prospect that he and his fellow video production company associates were unquestionably the ones who could breath life into the upcoming sales campaign. The ideas were, after all, allegedly the output of his ostensibly hyperactive cerebral cortex. Under the circumstances though, he felt more like a father who, after abandoning his child on the day of its birth, returns for the youngster's high school graduation, worthy of claiming no more credit for his offspring's development than is due the repository of a good gene pool.

Phil squirmed from one side of his seat to the other, shifting weight from hip to hip, crossing and uncrossing his legs, in a series of unsuccessful attempts at looking casual and in control. Good posturing, he knew, would be poor compensation for his lack of preparation. Instead of fulfilling his customary duties in the days before this critical meeting, he had wandered about the corridors of the production company for which he worked in the sort of anguish that had, in recent months, become the defining characteristic of his persona. People increasingly noted his exceptional listlessness, his slight air of disconnection from the events around him, punctuated by periodic outbursts of visceral hostility. Some thought it just another of those dangerous, sullen moods he so often wandered through, dragging everyone else along with him. His humors of late were particularly rancid, however, and had spawned a new phrase around the office; people spoke of being "Phil-laid" whenever forced to be with him, a witticism that accurately conveyed the double image of being simultaneously eviscerated and sodomized by this gloomy man. Those closest to him, which could be numbered in the ones, namely his wife, feared the new tides of his internal stormy seas would this time well up in a tsunami that might engulf and drown all those within range, including himself.

"See Phil this morning?" one wag asked another just the day before. "I asked him how he was doing, and he went off on some tangent about, 'how do you think I'm doing when I live on a planet where I can't find a place to park a car whose monthly payments are enough to feed a small third world country for a year? How the hell you think I'm doing?' Man, does this guy ever lighten up?"

"Yeah, and how 'bout that little scene with Mike yesterday?" the other office conversationalist enjoined, recalling another historic confrontation between Phil and the company owner. "He's supposed to be working on the proposal for that computer chip outfit. It could be the biggest production we've ever done, if Phil would, and let me quote our fearless leader, 'get his head out of his colon and back in the clouds, where a thinking ad man's brain belongs!' Maybe he's really flipped this time, ya think?"

Who knew? For his part, Phil was mostly interested in the reruns of sitcoms played endlessly on those cable channels at the far end of the dial. His life, like the simple characters in the old black-and-white shows which induced his nightly alpha brain wave patterns, had become a chain of predictable, repetitive motions. Being a fairly competent ad man whose thoughts were primarily metaphorical, he was continually creating internal images that might help explain his mid-life predicament. My life is rather like a bicycle chain, he once told his wife, with one significant difference; unlike the chain of a bicycle which propels its vehicle forward towards a destination, the succession of events in his life was thrusting him further into middle age only. The life he had dreamed of as a young agency hotshot (had it been only twenty five years earlier?) was rapidly receding into that indistinct horizon known as "the past".

Had he been more familiar with the inner workings of his own psyche, as familiar, say, as he was with what made people respond powerfully to an advertising campaign for a product they neither needed nor wanted, Phil might have fully recognized the specters of his unfulfilled ambitions hanging in the air like limpid ghosts, their ectoplasm smothering the bit of remaining vitality out of his already greatly diminished daily existence.

Unfortunately, these days his mind operated like a vast, shallow reservoir, covering miles of ground, but doing so only a few inches deep. It had not always been so. A handful of years earlier, his intellect had had the qualities of a deep, clear mountain lake to which creatures came to drink from miles around. Having done little to nurture his gifts beyond scheming ways to increase his monthly bonus check, Phil's well-spring of cerebral and emotional richness had been sucked dry, leaving his insides brittle and barren.

Still, there were enough of his once precise instincts remaining on this morning, as he sat stupefied in the brightly lit conference room, for him to discern the atmosphere of imminent doom. He was, he realized with a waft of renewed nausea, but moments away from rising in defense of a proposal he had seen only minutes before while standing with his colleagues in front of the client's corporate headquarters prior to the meeting.

"Since you could not find it in you to write more than two tepid pages of general concept outline, I had Arlene here flesh it out over the weekend," Mike McLintock, his boss of fifteen years, had said with open contempt. "For Christ's sake, at least take a look at the goddamn thing before we go in there, will you Phil?"

At the mention of Arlene's name, Phil's heart had immediately sunk. Young and as yet untempered by the fires of the competitive business world, Arlene was the latest on-staff producer to be hired, and Mike, a man with an imagination that extended no further than his penis or the outline for his company's next proposed ad campaign -- whichever he first found in his hand each morning -- had begun to increasingly rely upon Arlene as Phil sank ever deeper into his myopia. Had she not been like a newly born calf in Phil's eyes, wobbly and naive to the point of actually smiling sweetly at everyone throughout the entirety of the day, he would have hated her with the intensity he usually reserved for those clients who liked to improve upon his campaign ideas. As it was, he had been able to muster no more feeling towards her than a mild and distant curiosity, the sort of emotional engagement a botanist might feel for his favorite strain of moss or lichen. Phil stared at Arlene, as he had so often in recent weeks, slightly gap-jawed at the realization that such creatures of innocence still inhabit the earth, much less the advertising business.

Returning to relative consciousness, Phil had grabbed the now ten page proposal from Arlene's hand, and looked angrily at Mike before scanning the document.

"Shit. I can't believe this," he had begun, speaking as if Arlene were somewhere else, which was at that moment, his wish second only to the desire to be miles away himself.

"How many of these goddamn things has she written, anyway?" Before anyone could possibly have answered, he turned his question rhetorical. "None, that's how goddamn many." With a wild gesture towards Arlene that might as easily have been directed toward a nearby bush, he continued.

"What makes you think she's got enough experience...no, wait a minute...what makes you think she's good enough to put something this big together? And why didn't I have a chance to see it before now?"

Mike exhaled slowly while running the palm of one hand over his extensive midsection, a habit that always preceded an angry outburst. For his part, Mike had tolerated Phil's tirades more times than he would ever desire to recall. It had been worth it, Mike thought, up until about six months ago. People can put up with a lot of grief when a progenitor of misery was also the font of great financial success. Phil's creative juices had been at the heart of the company's award-winning and client-pleasing video marketing campaigns for over a decade. Lately though, Mike thought glumly, Phil had slipped off into a reality to which he alone had access. Even with Mike, and occasionally in front of clients, he had begun to vacillate between those bouts of sullen torpor and bursts of volcanic rage to which his co-workers had been randomly subjected for years. Anyone fitting the definition of "friend" had deserted him long ago, all unwilling to weather the winds of his inclement fulminations. Worst of all, he didn't seem to have the creative edge he once did. The most he appeared capable of offering at staff meetings in recent days was a fish-eyed look bracketed by intermittent expletives.
"The answer to your first question is that I don't need to explain to you or anyone else why I think she's good enough, asshole", Mike had retorted, gradually working himself up to the passionate tenor needed to do combat with Phil. Because he too was infamous for his paroxysms of verbal inanities, one of the most popular office sports was standing in the hallway outside Mike's office, listening to he and Phil ignite each other's ire.
"But just for the record", Mike continued more heatedly, "she's good enough because she's full of energy and ideas. Kind of like you used to be, Phil."
Phil had felt the blood burn its way through his cheeks and ears. For an instant, he entertained the dark vision of Mike writhing on the ground in pain, the prelude to an agonizing death caused by Phil's decision to methodically remove the pen from his top shirt pocket and insert it into one of Mike's wall-eyes, preferably the left one which never seemed to focus on anything. He tried to imagine precisely how much force would be required to firmly imbed the instrument deeply into his employer's frontal lobe. Or more accurately, he thought, the piece of protoplasm that passed for his bosses' brain, based on its shape and size, certainly not on its performance. Using that criterion, he thought wryly, Mike's gray matter was of little more use than an ordinary kitchen appliance; maybe less, since it wasn't capable of rudimentary functions, such as keeping perishables cold or producing a good piece of toast. Lobotomy-by-pen, he thought further; could start a new trend in relationship termination.
Unable to conjure the rancor necessary for a double murder, (although as harmless as a throw rug, Arlene would have to be strangled on the spot, eliminating the only witness to his justifiable homicide) Phil merely cocked his head to one side and loudly propelled air through both nostrils.
"As for your second question," Mike went on, "I tried calling you several times over the weekend. Do you ever check your goddamn voice mail?"
"I wasn't around this weekend." Phil's response sounded weak and silly to him, a stark contrast to the acidic malevolence he felt sitting in the well of his throat. If I were a snake, he silently conjured, I would inject you both with venom, then slowly swallow and digest the evidence of my crime. For a moment, he was distracted by thoughts of admiration for Mother Nature; how dispassionately and ingeniously she had equipped some of her denizens for the tasks of dispatching enemies or securing supper.
Sitting now with these myriad dismal reminiscences of that earlier encounter, awaiting the impending arrival of the client entourage, Phil wished he had been less consumed with the impulsive urgings of that pre-meeting encounter. Perhaps it would have been more fruitful had he instead paid closer attention to the contents of the mutated, mutilated proposal he now slowly laid on the table and pushed away from him, as if it were a bag containing a weeks' worth of biological contaminants from a hospital's operating theater. For there, staring back at him with unblinking mercilessness was the wellspring of the rapidly accumulating estuaries of perspiration gathering at telltale locations across his body.
He became aware that he must be exuding a distinct and odious odor; his sweat was of the clammy variety associated with animal fear. It occurred to him that had his prehistoric ancestors been faced with this situation, they would have chosen flight over fight. He knew instinctively that dismembering a large beast in hand to hand combat would have been a less arduous and bloody task than the thirty minute assignment which stretched before him.

Hoping that perhaps somehow the words had magically rearranged themselves on the page, he read once more the opening lines of the proposal, wanting to be certain that his situation was as tenuous as he feared. Phil's lips moved as he scanned through the opening paragraphs, evidence of his whimsy that giving utterance to the verbiage on the paper would perhaps act as an incantation which could alter his predicament. When he reached the portion of the proposal where his wordsmithing ended and Arlene's artless craft began, another large stone of fear dropped slowly down through his chest into his stomach, working its way diligently towards the tangle of his intestinal track. Each time Phil reread Arlene's unforgivable marketing mortal sin, he pondered anew the latent benefits of bolting from the room, hopping into his car, hitting the interstate highway heading south, and never looking back. This option might have actually held promise had he not realized that for him to stand at this moment was to flirt with the distinct possibility of fainting. He envisioned the client entering the room as he lay unconsciously sprawled across the large conference room table, end up, face down, while all silently studied him like an animal who has just been bagged on safari.

How could the situation have degenerated to his feeling light-headed enough to lose consciousness? Could it really be the effects of the insignificant blather on this small piece of paper? Or should he have had more for breakfast than a mound of sugar swimming in a double espresso? The thought then came to him that there was tragically little difference between his early morning libations and the tome he held in his liquid fingers; both offered little sustenance or substance, each a pretender at fulfillment.

As he lowered the page, Phil tried to think the situation through once more; perhaps if he could grasp the sociological implications of his dilemma, he might devise a plan of escape; or at least a plausible excuse. His philosophical ruminations barely embarked upon, a flurry of clothing and briefcases, accompanied by the distinct aroma of Obsession, the perfume of choice for today's advancing corporate woman, punctured the room, consigning his attempt at developing a survival strategy to a still-born death. Here came "The Clients", Phil realized, always distinguishable by the slight sneer at the edge of their tightly pursed mouths whenever greeting a would-be vendor such as his worm-like self.

Leading the pack of predators as they entered the room was the personification of Phil's fear, the head of Unitel Corporation's marketing department, one Ms. Lisa Prowess; (he knew if she were the character in a short story, the author would be forced to give her another name; the reader would never accept such an obvious synchronism of name and primary personality characteristic. Implausability is the grist of real life, not fiction, he knew.)

Phil had met Lisa only once before, during the initial pitch he and Mike had made two weeks earlier; the encounter had been sufficient to convince him that Ms. Prowess precisely represented those estrogen-borne traits which sent spasms of flaccidness running through the groins of every man with whom she had a professional relationship. He suspected that whenever men within the department discussed the formidable Ms. Prowess, they tried bravely and vainly to avoid being subsumed by the aura of power so accurately conveyed via her last name. By using pedestrian pejoratives such as "bitch" and "ball buster", they hoped to break the spell of her control over them, to demean her stature, relegating her to the Cro-Magnon status of woman as mere child bearer; but in their heart-of-hearts, these men recognized that their sneering condemnations were mere noxious vapors, gaseous maledictions which did nothing to dispel the reality of the magnetism emitted by Ms. Lisa Prowess. She had long held the unchallenged, if unofficial, title of "Most Foreboding Middle Manager" within the company. Phil appreciated these realities without being privy to their details; their murky, ill-defined outline filled the room with a presence which made the promised agonies of the next few minutes that much more pronounced.

Lisa Prowess carried herself into the room with the élan of a Chief Executive Officer who has just digested several subordinates for breakfast. She was self-constructed with that curious blend of feminine allure and cool professionalism that Phil had never quit been able to define. He immediately conceded to women of her carefully crafted design as being essentially enigmatic. Although projecting an aura of unequivocal sexuality, each component of their demeanor includes the opaque message that they are not to be trivialized as simple objects of lasciviousness. Phil observed with appreciative wonderment the ability such women have to make him feel passionately carnal at the same instant they are broadcasting warnings of danger in extremis. This must be akin to what the male counterpart of the Black Widow spider feels, he thought, just prior to conjugation followed by decapitation.

Considerably more than the categorical representative of the genus Femme Fatale, Lisa Prowess was a indeed a singular presence. Somehow she managed to house eyes that were at once steely and mischievous. As well-manicured as she was puissant, she consistently evoked a heady mixture of intoxication and diffidence from her male associates.

With the unrehearsed elegance of a yearling, she tossed back the sprawl of shoulder-length red hair which had become one of her many hallmarks, fully revealing an inscrutable, tantalizing face; this, while pulling out the vacant chair next to Phil. As she sat, she motioned with imperial grandeur for all to roost. Jesus, thought Phil, why did she have to pick the place right next to me? As he considered the likelihood that she might take advantage of his proximity to inflict physical harm should he disenchant her with his presentation, she began speaking with the soft intonations of understated command that distinguishes those who are in charge from those who are not.

"Good morning, everyone. Nice to see you Mike, Phil, Arlene. You know my associates, Jim, Bob and Dave..." Hmm, the infamous office eunuchs, mused Phil. Mutterings around the table acknowledged Lisa's salutations without risking the consequences of interrupting her.

"Well then, let's get right down to the business at hand, shall we?" Nodding affirmations all around paid yet additional homage to Lisa's so far unchallenged role as chieftain of the gathered clan. Mike, who enjoyed a self-perception as one well accustomed to dealing with "women in business", made the first (and, as it turned out, last) move to take control of the assemblage. "As you know, Mr. Prowess, we have..."

"I'm certain you have a great deal to tell us, Mike," Lisa cut him off at the verb, "and we're quite anxious to hear the details of your creative treatment." Was it the regal "we" she used, wondered Phil? Or was she including her quizzical associates who arrayed themselves quietly as shadow creatures along the remaining length of table on Lisa's opposite side?

"Did you get all the information you needed from Bob here in order to write your creative treatment?" she inquired, gesturing towards one of her companions as one might point to a newly acquired puppy. For a moment, Phil thought she might actually reach over and pat Bob on the head.

Phil had known his employer long enough to recognize the faint hint of annoyance which glinted momentarily in his eyes. If Lisa Prowess noticed, she showed no inclination to seek rapprochement. Impressed with her extraordinary ability to mold others, less by intimidation than with the sheer understated energies of her personality, Phil watched Lisa Prowess with slightly open-mouthed regard; he was, therefore, caught completely off-guard by the sudden realization that her limpid gaze was aimed in his direction; her question had been put to him, not Mike. "And how is the Creative Director feeling this morning? Awake enough to be... creative, I hope."

Her icy self-control contrasted so sharply with the menacing warmth of her smile that Phil was unable to suppress an involuntary shiver. He felt rather like the time in sixth-grade when his teacher, Mrs. Blotchet, had caught him absent-mindedly stroking his genitals in a prepubescent game of pocket pool in the back of the classroom. Then, as now, he wished he possessed the power to make himself invisible. "Ahh, umm, yes Lisa, I think...you're going to find my...our...the proposal to be quite exciting."

Lisa Prowess continued to star at him, now in silence; her slight smile of condescension suspended the room in a freeze frame of time and space. She seemed to be looking at him -- no, looking through him -- as if he were apprenticing a great Chess master and had just made a transparent observation about the opening movement of the Queen's pawn. Phil had the odd sensation of being tissue thin. For a instant he held the image of himself as one of those cartoon characters who is run over by a steam roller. The absurd imagery gave way to a picture of someone striking a match and setting him afire; he saw himself dissolve in a flash of flame and smoke, a piece of human rice paper with less substance than a hologram. With feelings of such abiding inadequacy taking hold so early in the meeting, he wondered how great the odds were against his surviving the coming minutes with even a modicum of human dignity. Mercifully, Lisa broke the trance which enveloped the room. "I'm certain we're all going to be very pleased, Phil. Please begin."

Mystics use a variety of terms to describe what happened to Phil next. Some speak of having a unitive experience, others talk of a feeling of transcendence; still others allude to their moment of clarity. At the sound of Lisa's command and as suddenly as the stellar implosion that creates a black hole, Phil simultaneously came to several realizations. He knew he would not only survive this terrible moment; he would walk away from it thoroughly satisfied and at peace, perhaps triumphant as well. Although he wondered vaguely why he felt so deeply reassured, he knew the source of his serenity was likely to remain forever one of the mysteries of his existence. The oddest constituent of his enlightenment was the absolute prescience he felt regarding the remainder of the meeting; Phil knew he knew how it would unfold, without being able to invoke the details in any meaningful way. Most importantly of all, he sensed he was immersed in a situation of superb irony, circumstances within which currents of creative observation that had years earlier become dry, dusty stream beds, were being fully replenished by free-flowing torrents of fluid inspiration. God parted the Red Sea for Moses. Phil had the impression that, for him, the miracle of inundation was taking place.

Curiously, he was able to embrace his role as observer and participant without the slightest fear of injury. His anguish of the previous moments had been a baptism leading to the birth of a new being, one impervious to harm. Phil noted that his heart calmed to the slow, steady rhythms of an athlete in his prime. The perspiration which had been coalescing into molten pools secreted along his body miraculously evaporated, canteens of moisture unable to survive the burning clarity of his revelations. His mouth, a heretofore dry cavern devoid of saliva, became abruptly fluid, lubricated for the task of elucidation ahead. Had his blood pressure been monitored at that exact moment, the observing medical professional would have been astonished at its sudden plunge. This is going to be fun, thought Phil; no, more than fun. The remainder of the meeting promised to provide the sort of merriment which had been missing from his life for years. The precise reasons as to why this should be so continued to remain just at the edge of his consciousness, but he relished the prospect of participating in the drama about to materialize.

As the first modulations of his voice radiated with fresh self-assurance, reverberating from the far wall at the other end of the conference table, Phil could feel a shift of energies in the room. All these profound universes of change had taken place between the end of Lisa's last sentence, and the utterance he was just beginning, a subjective time lapse of perhaps two seconds or less.

"Lisa, it's been a tremendously rewarding experience putting this proposal together for you. We were so fired up by the possibilities inherent in this campaign, that we broke with precedence, and worked on the proposal as a company-wide collaborative effort. Arlene, here, in fact, is the real genius behind what we've come up with. And so, I think it's only proper that she share with you the genesis of her creative approach. Then I can answer any questions you might have."

The brilliance of this maneuver made Phil nearly swoon for the second time that morning. Not only had he daintily removed himself from the hook, he had re-baited it with Arlene while appearing to be gracious and modest. Once again, the atmosphere in the room became heightened with the portent of immanent slaughter. Mike's expression took on the stony qualities of intended inscrutability which Phil recognized as the clear indicator of seething rage that roiled within his boss when situations were both out of his control and beyond his comprehension. Arlene's expression, written in the large letters of the innocent child, was one of dumbfounded pleasure and excitement. She perceived this as her moment in the sun, and a tiny surge of pity passed through Phil's heart as he considered the eagerness with which the lamb is led to slaughter in the full light of day. "Oh, really, Phil", Arlene sputtered, "I wasn't...you were...I mean, it was your idea; I just...fleshed it out a little."

Every move now hydraulically smooth, Phil turned slowly to face Lisa, a gesture of pretended deference. As their eyes met, they exchanged the glance of silent alliance that binds co-conspirators into a cohesive unit of treachery. She too was settling in to enjoy the dance of duplicity being choreographed on her behalf at Phil's behest. Leaning back in her chair, she cradled chin in hand, one finger extended to her cheekbone in the age-old posture of undiluted evaluation. There was no need for her to speak; she had temporarily relinquished authorship to Phil in the manner of a creative writing instructor who wishes to see how well a prized student can compose his first flight of fancy on paper.

With his quarry stalked into a blind ravine, Phil moved in for the next stunning blow, delivering a sweet soporific that could not have been more soothing had he fired it into Arlene's rump from a tranquilizer gun. "Now, Arlene, you're being much too modest. You spent a lot of time working on the proposal over the weekend, and I think it's only fair that you get what you deserve." Phil's thinly veiled double entendre caused everyone to shift in their chairs as if following a director's "action!" cue. All present pondered the subterranean implications of receiving one's own just deserts.

His prevision of the predation to come was infectious. The gathering was increasingly taking on the aura of a Roman amphitheater prior to the moment when the air would be split by the agonized screams of those being claimed as protein by ravished lions. Adding credence to this similitude, Lisa hungrily licked her lips before saying, "Phil's right, my dear. This is no time for false modesty. Please, let's get on with it. Time and money and all that, you know?" She winked at Phil in an exaggerated gesture of what seemed, at first glance, to be nothing more than disingenuous levity.

With that gesture, however, Phil took note of another momentous turning point in the morning's episodic melodrama. Not wishing to lose the recent gift of his composure, he refused to give the phenomenon complete conscious exposition. Only his loins registered a slight but unambiguous tremor, an involuntary consequence of the subtle sexual overtones which Phil suddenly realized were contained in the movement of Lisa's nictitating membrane in his direction. Or was this perception merely the treasonous voice of his male member, that appendage which had so often betrayed him with bad advice in times past? He had lost count of the occasions on which such urgings had led him into the sort of messy bogs where paleontologists find the fossils of animals with brains too small to save them from folly. Beware the Trojan Horse, thought Phil, turning his attentions fully to Arlene before his embryonic cupidity could betray him.

Arlene, meanwhile, looked pained and laborious in her indecision about whether to sit or stand. How curious it is, observed Phil as he dispassionately beheld her quandary, that our response to a situation is often the precise opposite of what the circumstances call for; in this case, Arlene was paralyzed by the need to perform. She could not force her voluntary nervous system to instruct her musculature to produce the simplest of movements. The deer-in-the-headlights syndrome, considered Phil.

After several agonizing moments in which those sitting close to Arlene considered helping her to her feet as if she were an invalid about to begin an intensive session of physical therapy, the young woman cleared her throat. This transfer of phlegm from lungs to esophagus seemed to break the logjam of her immobility. Her body slowly acknowledged the commands being sent to her legs by a feverish brain. Having mastered the necessary mechanics to successfully perform the feat of standing without assistance, it appeared that her overheated cerebellum was unable to forthrightly handle another function any time soon. She stood in a frozen imitation of the prey which has resigned itself to the predator. When the tension had once again risen to a palpable level beyond human tolerance, she picked up her copy of the proposal, and began to read aloud. Voice quivering with unbridled terror, Arlene resembled a child reading a composition in front of a gathering of derisive classmates.

Abruptly, Phil realized what had become of his multitude of symptoms when they had been dispelled by the miracle of his awakening moments ago; apparently, all his fear had been transmitted directly through the ether into Arlene, as if by means of an invisible catheter. Phil looked at her with the eyes of a soldier who, upon examining the recently deceased body of a fallen comrade, can muster no more compassionate a rejoinder than, "better you than me." Barely audible, Arlene began to read;


To produce a 5 to 8 minute video presentation which will be used to market the features and benefits of Unitel's new SZ670 data processor.

As he heard the few words of the proposal which he had contributed, Phil returned to his favorite preoccupation, himself. So very Phil-like those first few words, he thought after hearing the brief "objective". It was pointed, precise, and predictable, just the way clients always liked proposals to begin. Belaboring the obvious, he knew after years of doing so, was one of the most commendable practices within the marketing and advertising world, which made great commotion about originality while always embracing the predictable. Arlene read on, gaining a bit of composure and modulation as she warmed to her task.


Because the new SZ670 data processor's main sales feature is the increased speed with which it allows the end user to utilize his or her computer, we recommend that we create a dramatization which illustrates the comparisons between two users -- one who enjoys the advantages of the SZ670 and one who doesn't.

Still vintage Phil, Phil thought, despite the run-on sentence structure. The Frankenstein of Arlene's creation was about to show its first bolts and sutures. Phil could empathically feel the muscles in Arlene's neck and upper back tighten in a vise grip along her entire vertebral structure. Pain radiated like canals of poison through her head, he knew, as she began to read the ideas she had grafted onto his original work. Her fear was born of an ignorance of what was to come. Had she realized what the next few minutes held for her, she would have collapsed in a paroxysm of symptoms requiring immediate hospitalization. She read on.

The part of the non-SZ670 user will be played by a male actor, who will be portrayed as today's typical office computer user -- dressed for success and ready to take on the day's tasks in his in-basket.

The part of the SZ670 user will be played by a female actress. She will also personify today's typical, upwardly mobile woman in business. That is, she will be competent, yet sexy. She knows how, in other words, to use all her gifts -- from her brain to her delightful, fully feminine figure.

Many of the survivors of the atomic explosion over Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, say they vividly remember the moment just before the explosion. Many recall a great stillness, as if everyone had halted their conversations and taken a in-breath together, while birds stopped singing, dogs ceased to bark, and everyone looked skyward before the flash of primal energy that consumed their city.

Such was the moment at hand in the conference room. An eternity of silent anticipation metamorphosed within each person present. Phil was certain he heard glass breaking in another room; or was it a baby crying in the distance? These were but psychological phantoms, the feeble offerings of Phil's mind as it searched for some way to frame the pending detonation.

Had there been time to consider the history which led to this crossroads of human emotion, Phil was probably the best equipped person in the room to appreciate the severity of the seismic pressures of centuries of oppression about to be unleashed. In the manner of a mother teaching her child not to play with snakes, his wife had schooled him repeatedly in how to avoid being bitten by the issue of sexual exploitation in the market place.

As a catch phrase, "women in business" had become a ubiquitous term in the English speaking world of the late 20th Century. One's particular perspective of the phenomenon depended entirely on the biological plumbing and culturation of the definer. Many men, perhaps most (especially those in business themselves) thought of "women in business" as a burdensome nightmare from which they might awaken some morning, discovering once again a world where men were men and women brought condiments into the room with questions such as, "coffee or tea, sir? One lump or two?"

Phil believed that even the most liberal of males secretly harbored this fantasy. They might vehemently deny it were they confronted with such an accusation, but in bawdy gatherings of male bonding, the idea was likely to be touted at least once as a tendril which guaranteed the connection of male camaraderie and companionship, if not necessarily a topic for serious conversation.

At the other end of evolution-according-to-Phil, females of the Homo Sapien variety were generally divided into two warring camps; those who militantly held to their right to draw as much blood in the marketplace as any of their male counterparts, and those who thought that if God had intended women to work for a living, he would not have given the nation the Republican Party.

To be certain, membership in the latter group of woman did not suggest an automatic alliance with conservative men. The eons of female deference to their male masters may still have existed in Third World enclaves, but it been effectively eradicated from the mainstream of First World life. Regardless of their stripes, as liberated wielders of power in commerce, or supposed toadies who followed the literal interpretations of scripture, women were increasingly in agreement that their new status was far preferable to the days when bras were set aflame in public. Women had been making steady, if grudgingly granted gains in the capitalist system since at least the mid 1970s. As a result, many men found themselves suffering under the regime of a female supervisor (such as Lisa Prowess) or female business owner. Alliances were fragile but real. An elaborate set of unwritten edicts had become part of the cultural lore regarding this first time sociological occurrence. One's testosterone might secretly boil in the midst of the loss of the hunter's dominance, but one learned to do what one must in order to survive, believed Phil.

He had come to understand each of these subtle legislation's and became a master practitioner at the bar of pretended equality in the workplace. The depth of his comprehension regarding the taboo of perceived sexism was at the heart of his angst earlier that day. For he had dreaded the consequences of reading aloud Arlene's naive role modeling to the quintessential business woman, Ms. Lisa Prowess. Said dread was also the fodder for his epiphany upon realizing he could turn the conference tables, as it were, crafting the ultimately insulting situation for a woman like Lisa, while positing himself as a sympathetic comrade in arms.

And now the over-ripe fruit had fallen from the tree; a woman in business had suggested to another woman in business that women in business were still, effectively, mere objects of sexuality. It was as if, with one sentence, Arlene had attempted to negate all feminist advances of the past four decades, and had done so before one of the high priestesses of equality.

All eyes, except Arlene's, were fixed on Lisa Prowess, her face contorted into a tightened mask of rage. Perhaps this is the way the surface of Mount St. Helen's looked, considered Phil, just before it spewed several square miles of dirt into the upper atmosphere in May 1980. Lisa sprang to her feet, a great feline leaping at its victim on the Serengeti Plains of Free Enterprise.

"Not only do I find it personally distasteful, young lady, that you should think it necessary for a woman to be portrayed as needing any more than her professional competence in the work place," Lisa hissed between taut lips, " but as a professional woman, I am astonished...shocked...dismayed...and goddamned angry as hell that you, a woman yourself...albeit it young and inexperienced...should harbor such illusory stereotypes about woman! We no longer need to show our legs...or any other portion of out anatomy...in order to do as well, or better than, our male counterparts!"

While impressed that she had managed this succinct diatribe within a single breath, Phil suspected she was practiced at delivering such erudite orations. Turning to look at Arlene, he thought he might have to leap across the table and slap her firmly on the back in order to re-start her breathing. Her face fixed firmly in horror, Arlene's eyes looked downward, bulging from their sockets as if she were caught in the vacuum of deep space.
Would she respond meekly to Lisa's tirade? Would she sit down in subdued silence, letting one of the more sagacious males from her office determine the appropriate follow up to Lisa's pronouncement? Or would her head simply explode, the result of the accumulating pressures of terminal embarrassment, spraying the surroundings with brains and blood?

What actually happened next surprised Phil, who considered himself a hardened veteran who was inured to the vagaries of the advertising and marketing business. As a flood of tears began flowing profusely from her still-protruding eyes, Arlene raised her head and with a voice whose smoothness contrasted with the rest of her lack of poise, said softly, "How long has it been since you've taken a close look at yourself, Miss Prowess?" Clutching the sodden and crumpled papers of the proposal in one hand, she raised them high above her head as if they had become helium filled and might carry her to the ceiling.

Her whispered delivery began to gain volume and cadence. "I mean, my God, you were my inspiration for this! Look at yourself, why don't you. You are...". She lowered the page containing the defamatory statement so that she could read it verbatim again. "...You are 'competent, yet sexy.' And it's you who knows how to 'use all her gifts -- from her brain to her delightful, fully feminine figure.'"

Arlene first lowered the disheveled document to the table, then her disheveled self to the chair, and sobbed quietly without restraint. Mike had hidden his face in his hands, slumping in his chair with the body language of one who has just received a terminal diagnosis. Phil considered the likelihood that his boss might require cardio pulmonary resuscitation sometime before noon that day, and swore a silent oath it wouldn't be his mouth which would affix itself across Mike's gaping, flaccid maw should the emergency arise. All others at the table tried to pretend that unoccupied portions of the room held their interest. Everyone except Phil and Lisa.

What distinguishes the great actresses of the stage from the merely proficient ones is their ability to control all aspects of their outward bearing. The audience, while under the spell of these mavens of melodrama, sees only what they are permitted to observe. Although she must have felt as if she had been bludgeoned by a truncheon, the only telltale symptom of distress Phil could detect in Lisa was a slight irregularity and shallowness to her breathing. She stood as poised as a Madonna, the tips of her fingers slightly in contact with the table top, her torso balanced evenly over both of her exceptionally long legs. Phil looked down and noticed how smooth they appeared under her stockings.

All available air was siphoned from the room as Lisa drew in a loud breath. Debate would ensue for weeks afterwards whether her pursed lips represented a wry smile or merely a banal, frozen tic of contempt. With the menacing understatement of a headmistress, she softly crooned, "You have a great deal to learn, Arlene, and I'm certain that this mornings painful, public lesson will not be one that you will soon forget. In view of your inexperience and probable good intentions, I think it only fair that I accept your unintended blunder as a clumsy attempt at a compliment."

Phil took a deep, exhilarating breath of his own that penetrated to the bottom of his lungs. This, he thought, was the privilege of witnessing an accomplished artisan at close range. Had he been laying on the scaffolding next to Michelangelo as he painted the Sistine chapel, he could not have been more profoundly in awe of the stalwart genius unfolding only a few feet away from him. He was momentarily seized by an impulse to fling himself at Lisa's feet and, while wrapped around her legs, to beg her to permit him an apprenticeship under her tutelage. Only the thinnest of social membranes separated him from performance of this unseemly act. Had Lisa turned her attentions to him at that moment, he would have dissolved like salt sprinkled into the sea. As it was, she continued to fix her stare squarely on her antagonist, preparing to dispatch Arlene with one final, deftly dealt blow.

With the same ethereal grace she had exhibited when entering the room, Lisa descended without a sound into her chair. An animal at home in her lair, thought Phil, every movement calculated to mesmerize and disengage. Placing one hand on the polished surface of the table, she began to drum her fingernails. Phil looked at her hand and, for the first time, noticed that he nails were manicured in a manner that must have required hours of meticulous grooming. Completing his imagery of her as savage beast, he imagined her cleaning herself with a few slow strokes of her own tongue. He quickly banished these imaginings, fearful that the small beads of sweat appearing on his upper lip might be harbingers of a return to his pre-enlightenment condition of bodily dew.

When she spoke again, it was in the crisp, unhurried manner with which a superior dismisses her subordinates. "Nonetheless, I think it best we dispense with hearing the rest of your proposal today. However, I expect you to expunge the sexist references from your proposal, and we'll meet back here again day after tomorrow, at 8 AM, to consider your full... amended...presentation."

The relief felt by everyone, except Arlene, was palpable. Small rumblings of agreement were muttered around the table, and Mike fairly burbled with enthusiastic acquiescence. "You're quire right, Lisa. We can make the necessary changes right away, and have a fresh proposal ready for you in 48 hours."

An electric thrill of excitement passed through Phil as Lisa slowly crossed her legs, and turned her attentions once again to him. Smooth, long, perfectly sculptured legs, he heard a voice say in his head. Slightly raising one eyebrow, she leaned forward as if preparing to share a confidence with him. Lowering her voice, she ran her eyes up and down Phil's body with the appraising scrutiny of one who is deciding whether or not to purchase a new garment. An apt analogy, realized Phil; had he gone but slightly more limp, he might have easily been placed on a hanger and hung in a nearby closet.

Bringing her eyes back to his, she leaned closer still, reached out, and placed her hand on top of his extended forearm. Every tiny hair on his flesh rose with the resultant chill. Noting his reaction with evident satisfaction, she spoke again. "Perhaps you should stop being so modest yourself, Phil. I'd be willing to bet that there's more of you in this first draft than you're taking credit for. Isn't that so?"

Had he ever been in more danger than he was at this moment, he could not recall it. Lisa was unaccustomed to being disagreed with; yet, to do so would place him back where he had begun the morning. No, no, in much more compromising a posture than that; for in addition to having to admit his authorship of the sin of sexism, he would be admitting to shifting blame to his guileless co-worker. Yet, was there an alternative to these unappealing options which he had not yet considered?

In the same fashion as his earlier regeneration, realization sprang full born into his consciousness. Every lurid detail of the current situation exploded into crystalline clarity in the center of his forehead; could it be that his entire existence had been a preparation for this single moment of salacious truth? He knew the exact answer Lisa anticipated, and fully embraced its consequences. The erstwhile elusive source of irony contained in the day's events was at last laid bare, revealing itself to be no more complex that an elementary school math equation. One plus one was, as always, about to yield the magic number of two. "I guess there's not much point in trying to get anything by you, Lisa."

His response had oozed forth as a low rumble, forcing the others present to move imperceptibly closer so they might share this intimacy. One exception was Arlene, whose weeping ceased as if on command at the conclusion of Phil's sentence. A rancid expression of unabashed hatred spread across her countenance, a desert storm clouding her soft features with the imprint of newly acquired cynicism.

Phil and Lisa Prowess were unaware of these varied reactions; all others had ceased to exist except themselves. Should Phil have noticed Arlene, he would have dismissed her as easily as a playwright who, upon complete utilization of a character, peremptorily drops her from the last scene in his play.

"Please, accept my apology, and my assurance, that we never meant to demean the status of women in the proposed video", Phil purred to Lisa. "As you have so eloquently pointed out, today's professional woman need no longer be portrayed by means of the old stereotypes. You have my personal commitment that the woman in our proposal will represent your product with all the dignity and asexuality today's professional women deserve."

With an audacity reminiscent of his sordid youth, Phil ended his recitation with an exaggerated wink, the shadow of Lisa's earlier gesture. This, combined with his cryptic comment about just deserts, his second of the morning, should have been enough to insure him a terrible fate. Yet he felt not a hint of fear. Honed to surgical sharpness, his instincts assured him he was providing Lisa with the titillation and thinly disguised artifice she desired. As if to confirm these insights, as she slowly pulled her arm back and sat upright, Phil became aware that her breathing had become more rapid and irregular; each breath seemed to have its origins in her upper frame rather than in the diaphragm. This created the odd effect of an unevenly heaving chest moving back and forth within inches of Phil's hands. Her breasts seemed to be responding to an invisible tidal force, two identical waves swelling sporadically to full crescendo before crashing against the rocky shore of her clothing, then falling back into the ocean of her body.

Summoning every scintilla of remaining will, Phil forced his eyes away from this wonder of human oceanography. His was the Herculean task of concentration required by one who has vowed to read a good book while standing in the midst of a great battlefield where two armies are fully engaged.

Lisa's tongue, activated once more, spread a thin sheen of moisture over both lips. If she were to had him a sword commanding that he throw himself upon it, he would have flung himself at the blade with enthusiasm. Instead, her fingers extended towards him holding a business card which had materialized as if by slight of hand. "I have absolute faith in your abilities, Philip, and I want to help you in any what I can."

Phil reached for the card reverentially, the holy wafer of his fantasies. Holding the sacred icon closer, he scanned its contents. On the back, he saw a single phone number written in ink. "That's my home number, Phil. I have the next couple of days off, so I won't be in the office. Let's get together and work on this. I'll expect to hear from you tonight."

Lisa Prowess unfolded her legs and stood. Scanning the room once, she made a final evaluation of each attendee. Then walking briskly to the door, entourage in tow, she disappeared down the hallway, the soft hint of derisive laughter floating back over her shoulder.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Phil learns proper cutlery etiquette.

Grass Man

The company First Sergeant, as a humiliation, had designed a procedure for removing crabgrass from the company lawn by means of a teaspoon. Thing of it is, Phil discovered, the teaspoon is an excellent utensil for burrowing under the tenacious roots of each Digitaria Ischaemum or Digitaria Sanguinalis. Better still, Phil found the work relaxing, even meditative, except for the leg cramps, so when no officers or noncoms were passing by, he laid almost prone on his side with his head cradled in one hand, as he developed a picking rhythm with the other. Tip of the spoon into the soft, red Georgia clay, a quick, brutal thrust under the plant, flick, once, twice, maybe thrice, and one representative of the many species of flora which man has designated as undesirable flies into the air.

On another in a series of impossibly hot Dixie summer afternoons, the lawn in front of the Company C headquarters, a part of Ft. Gordon’s U.S. Army Signal Center and School to which Phil had been assigned upon his return from a year in South Vietnam, was strewn with Phil’s handiwork. The carcasses of his victims lay randomly wherever they had fallen to the assault of his utensil. He was about to begin an offensive on yet another green underdog, when a shadow cast itself across the site of his latest planned attack.

“The fuck you doing?”

Phil shields his eyes and sees a grinning giant standing with the sun to its back. Phil momentarily considers the possibility that some sort of reverse Jack and the Beanstalk story is unfolding in which the leviathan has climbed down a great stalk of crabgrass to avenge his photosynthetic friends. Such fanciful imagining had become more frequent over the past couple of years during which Phil had become a steady respirator of another plant species that many Vietnam veterans and other rebels looked quite favorably upon, Cannabis Sativa.

“Fuck’s it look like?”

The titan continues to grin, and Phil’s mind switches to the last Batman comic he read. The Joker. The army has enlisted the Joker. The giddy laugh now emitting from the behemoth makes the idea more credible.

“Looks to me like you’ve gotten on the Sarge’s bad side.” Another enormous smile, rows of unblemished porcelain. He can just make out two gleaming blue eyes and a crop of closely cut blond hair. Are there Nordic Goliaths roaming the base? Phil decides the Brobdingnagian’s comment is not meant to deride, so he stands and extends his hand.

“I am the Sarge’s bad side. Private -- E-1 -- Phil Ailill, specializing in plant life destruction.”

Big Boy emits a boisterous laugh that is to become one of the few delights of Phil’s remaining time as a Government Issue Joe.

“Well, you’re doing a hell of a job, there, private. Wanna go rabbit and get a beer? You must be thirsty after all that killing. Name’s Bill. Corporal – E-3 – Bill Nita.”

The giant places one meaty manus on Phil’s left shoulder while grasping his right hand with the other paw. He squeezes all the blood out of Phil’s rotator cuff and fingers at the same time. It is a duel gesture of acceptance, affection and protection to which, second only to the man’s grin, Phil will turn to as refuge many times in the months ahead. If only he wouldn’t clutch with quite so much torque.

“Sarge will have me drawn and quartered. I’m already at the top of his shit list. Let’s head out after formation at 6.”

Phil finds his own reasonableness an annoying anomaly. He prides himself on unbridled recalcitrance ever since the night he was arrested in ‘Nam for curfew violation. When the giant shakes his head in agreement, a surge of adrenalin forces a new assessment from his mouth before his brain can exercise editorial control.

“Fuck ‘em. What’s he gonna do, send me to ‘Nam?”

This bromidic sarcasm had become standard esculent amongst his generation of soldiers. It seemed the perfect coverall for any and every form of planned insubordination. The giant’s smile releases itself, and a grayness passes across his face.

“You been, huh?”

“I’ve been. You?”

“Not yet. Waiting on orders.”

Phil stares hard at his new acquaintance. For a terrifying instant, he sees the giant’s face drained of life, heaped atop a pile of other corpses under a jungle canopy. He’s forced to look away, not soon enough to stifle full communication of his terror to his companion. Again, the reassuring shoulder clasp.

“Hey, don’t worry about it, man. Long as I know I get to come back and attack grass, I’ve got something to live for, right?”

Phil manages one of those theatrical smiles of assurance he’s come to hate, the ones that mean the opposite of their alleged intent.

“I know a guy who lives off base with his wife,” the gargantuan offers. “We can hook a ride with him to one of those swill halls in town. But, really, man, let’s wait till after formation. I don’t want to think that the first time we met I got you jammed up more than you already are.”


Phil always took point, with Bill forming the rest of their two-man platoon of din and destruction. Their default roles were simple: Phil started trouble, Bill put an end to it. Even limited by Phil’s 180 pounds of mouth only, as long as he was backed by Bill’s 280 pounds of muscle stacked 6-feet 4-inches high, there were no situations that arose wherein this pairing of irresponsibleness didn’t work well. Phil at least made a cursory attempt at keeping the antagonists to a manageable number, since he was completely without merit during the course of an altercation, other than his ability to goad opponents with a heavy stream of provocative taunts. The heavy bone crushing was always left to Bill. Upon occasion, Phil managed to create chaos even his friend couldn’t handle, usually after Phil’s consumption of impossible amounts of ethanol, which his metabolism could never process quickly enough to keep up with the speed of his bending elbow.

This is one of those nights.

Phil had often wondered if blue laws were so named because they made his alcoholism impossible to practice everyday of the week. His sense of history was like that – Phil-centric. In the world outside Phil’s reality, blue laws were first enacted in the Puritan colonies in the 17th century as a way of enforcing certain moral codes, disallowing commerce on Sundays. In the century to follow, such codes spread throughout the colonies – including Georgia – and were extended to include the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The name actually evolved as a derogatory reference to the starched uprights who followed such codes. Blue laws were adhered to by bluenoses.

Phil liked to keep his nose red, and when Georgia bars closed promptly at midnight each Saturday, he and other dedicated dilettantes and bona fide boozers, mostly his fellow soldiers, headed northeast from the Augusta area for the short jaunt to the South Carolina state line. A caravan of careening cars of every vintage could be seen late every Saturday raising dust along Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, like an invader’s convoy, crossing the Savannah River for the more libertine, seedy environs of western South Caroline. Phil and Bill were often at the head of this profligate motorcade, already wild-eyed and beyond boistous, ready to commence their weekly two state crime spree. Their favorite haunt, aptly named Pandora’s Box, had nothing to do with Greek mythology and everything to do with deranged debauchery.

As its name suggested, Pandora’s Box exuded a crotch-like aroma that seemed the perfect complement to the high-pitched screeching spewing from an array of speakers placed non-strategically around the barroom. Had the decibel levels been less than that required to ensure permanent damage to the auricular nerves, the cacophony might have been identifiable loosely as music. There was no hearing of this maelstrom; it was felt, mostly as a vibratory pain starting in the head and moving throughout the body. While such sensory pandemonium made conversation impossible, combined with the bar’s low-light motif, it was the perfect environment for being subsumed into a total loss of self. The paucity of light also helped disguise the layers of accumulated filth that would reveal the true griminess of the place in the full light of day. A visitor could seek temporary refuge from this afferent bombardment by slipping into the restroom, assaulted there by the overarching odor of urine and vomit.

It was Phil’s favorite place on the planet.

A refuge is often thought of as a place where sanctuary is possible in a contemplative atmosphere where stress is reduced and damaged nerves can heal. A solo flute echoing through the burial chambers of the Great Pyramid of Giza; men intoning Gregorian chant in a secluded monastery; shafts of soft sunlight permeating a garden, the air filled with the gentle tremolo of birds. For Phil, the opposite was true. Vietnam had transformed him into an adrenalin junkie. Incomprehensible noise, explosions, acceleration and sudden impacts were the tissue that tied him to existence. Were his physical being capable of surviving, he would have been most at home as the test subject at an annual convention of anarchists demonstrating the effects of their latest guerilla tactics on the human body, sitting along the rim of Hawaii’s Halema‘uma‘u crater awaiting a pyroclastic flow, or stuffed into a barrel about to enter the hydraulics of Niagara Falls. On this, and every Saturday night, due to the restrictive terms of his contract with the US Army, Pandora’s Box would have to do.

The only disruption, albeit a consistent one, to Phil’s weekly indulgence in persistent over-stimulation was his lack of the coin of the realm. A private’s salary was a stingy stipend, and Phil often found himself coming up short just when he felt his sinews tightening in a way that assured him he was still alive. Bill was generous enough to augment Phil’s bottomless thirst for alcohol when he could, but his corporal’s salary often, too, gave out at critical moment’s in the midst of Phil’s voracity. The crucial factor was the positioning of a given Saturday’s debauch in relation to payday, which came, sadly, but once a month. The further the two adventurers got from seeing the rumpled face of the company paymaster, the more likely they were to have only shrugging shoulders as a response to a bartender’s extended open palm. The last Saturday of the month was the worst, for payday was at least a tantalizing, excruciating stretch into the following Monday, if not longer.

This is the last Saturday of the month.

Bill looked across the table at Phil’s face with the anticipation of a child about to witness the detonation of his first M-80. He felt a mixture of dread and wonder as he watched the subterranean currents within his friend slowly burble towards the surface. They had consumed the last beer either could afford, and Bill knew they could equally ill-afford to hang out longer at the Box, or Phil’s unpredictability would soon turn him mustang. It would be hooves and horseshit aplenty before the body count could even begin. Bill inhaled deeply in preparation for his attempt to shout above the din.

“Sget outta here, man!”

Phil raised his head and turned it to one side. His chest swelled, as if trying to expel overly long compressed quantities of bile.

“Fuck this place! Fuck it!”

Phil propelled himself from his chair like he might be expecting to gain altitude, perhaps wishing to jettison himself from the room over the bobbing heads of the assemblage. Without warning, he veered to that side of the room closest to the tiny kitchen where the Box produced varying forms of grease saturated dishes customers used as part of their prolonged attempts at suicide by toxic consumption. Bill sensed imminent danger, but was blocked from Phil by a phalanx of party goers. He stretched a long arm in Phil’s direction, able only to grasp air. Phil was stealthily snaking his way to the small slit that connected the kitchen with the bar, a tiny shelf with heating lamps where the one nonplussed waitress could retrieve victuals for selected members of the gyrating throng who packed the joint. At the moment, two orders of burgers with fries were awaiting her servile ministrations. Bill could make out Phil’s expression of delighted lunacy as he reached for the switch that controlled the heating lamps. With a quick flick of a finger, Phil flipped off the lights.

Survivors of car accidents or other near death experiences universally tell of compressed time as the defining characteristic of their flirtation with the Angel of Death. This slow motion effect now saturated Bill’ perception, forever to stamp his memory of the minutes to follow as if a lifetime had been squeezed into the space of a sub-atomic particle. The other component of observation he noticed was a sense of absolute disembodiment. He had no legs to move with, nor arms with which to push. He could no longer hear the raucousness of the room. His breathing had stopped, for there was no awareness of “body,” so there were no lungs. The only window to consciousness was vision, and it had widened to include almost everything peripheral. To complete the surreality, only two people in the room were in motion – Phil and his newly emerged pursuer.

Phil was two feet beyond the spot where the light switch protruded from the wall. As he attempted to gain traction and speed for the front door of the Box, a bouncer had appeared, apparently from a parallel dimension where he laid in wait for such occurrences, and was now within striking distance of the unsuspecting Phil. Bill watched with impotent horror as the bouncer’s arm came up and swung in a perfect arc across the top of Phil’s scull. It could have been nothing more than a rebuking slap to the apex of Phil’s cranium, had not the bouncer’s arm extended into a thick, 2-foot long wooden truncheon. There was a loud crack, and a spurt of bright red hematic fluid flew up from the middle of Phil’s pate. Phil’s impish countenance was as suddenly replaced with a look of surprise and dysphoria.

As quickly as the time/space continuum had congealed into moments of agonizing listlessness, it now expanded into a frenzy of seismic activity. Those closest to the action screamed and began to move away in unison, a field of human wheat blowing in a summer’s breeze. The bashing bouncer was joined by another steroidal creature, each man roughly lifting Phil’s limp carcass off the barroom floor, hauling him like a combat casualty from the field of battle. The tips of Phil’s shoes carved two crevasses of cleanliness across the grimy floor as he was dragged away, all three men disappearing through a nearby door that Bill had never noticed, till now. It was one of those portals intended to remain undetectable until its dark purpose was required, and Bill knew instinctively what awaited his wounded comrade on its other side.

A third brute had appeared to guard the door, but Bill shoved him aside, giving the ogre an opportunity to asses his chances. One look at Bill’ raised hams, and the troll backed into the protective anonymity of the crowd. Bill kicked the door open, and froze in place. The pistol that had been rammed inside Phil’s mouth swung towards the commotion at the door and pointed itself directly at Bill’s face. He wondered if Ft. Gordon had enough neurosurgeons on standby to work simultaneously on two recently shattered heads. The thought of lying next to Phil as they both had dead brain tissue removed was oddly soothing.

“You come in here looking for trouble, motherfucker, and you found it!”

The gorilla with the gun was holding Phil in a chair with his other hand. Phil didn’t look much like Phil, his face and shirt soaked in the red juice of life. Somehow, he managed a tiny smile. Bill slowly raised his arms into the air.

“No, man, no! We’re cool here, man. I just came in to take my friend home, that’s all man. We cool…we cool. All right? I know he’s a stupid motherfucker, and he shouldn’t of turned your light off, but you got him good, man. He’s learned his lesson, right Phil? You learned your lesson, right man, right?”

Bill knew the longer he talked, the less likely a round was going to get squeezed down the barrel of that pistol.

“Yeah, Bill, sure, I learned my lesson. Never fuck with assholes.”

When Phil grinned, his teeth were obscured by accumulated crimson. He looked like a battered boxer at the end of 10 rounds of mismatch. Bill buried his face in his hands, refusing to take in what was to follow. Pistol packer slowly lowered the gun, turned to Phil, and let out a small chuckle. The pistol smashed across Phil’s face, and the sound of his nose cartilage shattering and two teeth being torn from their lodgings could probably be heard outside the room.

“Your friend here’s got a mighty big mouth.”

Pistol packer was addressing Bill, as one of his sycophants handed him a wash rag to clean his hands of Phil’s coagulate. Mercifully, Bill noted, the pistol was exchanged for the towel.

“Got a big nose, too, that he likes sticking in places it don’t belong. But I think with the improvements I’ve made, he ain’t goona be using his big mouth…or his big nose…for a long time.”

Penitentiary humor. The owner or manager or whatever he was, as well as his four lieutenants, had enough scars and tattoos in evidence to make it obvious that they had done time in places where this sort of bravura was considered hilarious. They cackled at the boss’s vapid idea of a witty one-liner. Phil was going in and out of consciousness. Bill slowly lowered his arms.

“Get this monkey outta here,” the gorilla said. “Don’t never bring him back. I see you two in here again, you’re gonna wind up at the bottom of the Savannah.”

“Yeah, sure, no problem.” Bill cautiously made his way to the bleeding heap that was his friend. Phil felt himself dropping into the void.

Leaving Pandora’s Box was cinematic. The Red Sea mob parted for Bill’s Moses, as he carried the unconscious Phil across the room. It seemed as though Phil’s blood covered the interior of the entire bar. Certainly it oozed with gusto onto Bill, as he cradled his friend’s unrecognizable head, and Phil was already awash from stem to stern in the stuff. Bill walked slowly to the door, trying to remember that household tip regarding the removal of blood stains. The results of this carnage would require an industrial strength application of whatever it was. A clothes burning bond fire would probably be best.


Tiny flashes of white light, while the world spins by at immeasurable speed. Blackness and lacuna. More lights, these of varying color and symmetry.

“Just lie still, little brother. We’re gonna get you fixed up.” Bill’s voice echoes from several miles distance.

No visions now, only pain. The sensation of rising gorge, a taste of acidic, effulgent emetic.

“Goddamn it, not in the fucking car!” Why does Bill’s voice smell like vomit?

Tires digging to a gravely stop. Voices in some sort of contest, one trying to layer itself atop the other. Hands everywhere, on his legs, under his arms and neck. The merciful sensory deprivation, once again, of falling into the depths of a well.

The light is white and bright. This must be the tunnel, comes the thought. Uncle Bob is here to welcome me to the Other Side! This dream is brought into question by Uncle Bob’s stern rebuke.

“Yer a fuckin mess, private. A disgrace to the uniform. What happened?”

Don’t they know everything here already? And why is he bringing up that old canard about official clothing having some sort of significance? Are they as stupid up here as they are down there? Uncle Bob comes into focus. He’s wearing a white coat, like a good angel should, but sprouting from the top is a military shirt with captain’s bars. Oh, dear God Almighty Father, I’ve been sent to Army heaven, Phil thinks, as his panic rises. Maybe that’s what happens when you die while still in the ranks. Remanded to a place of the eternal stint, no discharge allowed because you didn’t finish your contract on terra firma.

“Like I said, sir, he fell.”

They must have shot them both. How else could he hear Bill’s voice?

“Kind of a magic fall. Like that bullet that took Kennedy out.” Uncle Bob has developed a wry sense of the absurd since his demise.

Phil tries to speak, and the neuralgia of missing teeth and a swollen proboscis causes a spasm of nausea. These compete with the agony at the apex of his head. “I still have a body, I’m still alive, this isn’t Uncle Bob, I am in deep ship,” all dawn at once.

“Fell on concrete, sir. Did kind of a swan dive.”

The “s” words have a little whistle to them. He has been transformed into a wounded bulbul. He feels a tenderness and endearment for himself, another innocent avian blasted from the sky. Uncle Bob seems unmoved by these sentiments, staring back with a mask of icy unconcern.

“If I get a police report, or a civilian complaint, that contradicts your account…gentlemen…” – his gaze draws Bill into the indictment – “…I will be speaking with your commanding officer. “

He makes a few more pen marks on Phil’s chart for dramatic punctuation.

“Till then, I’ve sown you up, Private Ailill, so you and your buddy can get the hell outta here.”

Why do they always have to put so much emphasis on the word “private?” I know I’m at the bottom of the pecking order, low man on the totem pole, blah, blah, Phil thinks. Always got to rub it in, though. It they carried a salt shaker, they could apply some sodium for maximum effect.


If there was a place on Phil’s head that didn’t throb with excruciation, he couldn’t find it. It would be at least a week before the base dentist could see him. There was little point in resisting the inevitable; whenever he opened his mouth, he looked like one of those local inbred crackers who lose their teeth as part of their daily non-hygiene program. Besides, the broken nose had turned into a spectacular rainbow of colors and had swollen to softball dimensions, and most people’s eyes grew wide with amazement as they were inexorably drawn to the sight of this grotesque vision. His nose resembled more a gigantic pustule or tumor than a device designed for air intake. When Phil rolled over in his sleep and this bulbous growth came into contact with the pillow, the resulting sensations were an immediate entrée into his own private planetarium. Stars exploded across his brain, and the boys in the barracks had become tempted to tape his mouth shut in order to spare themselves his squeals of nocturnal torment. Pity prevailed, for everyone knew that such a strategy would result in Phil’s asphyxiation. Phil had become a mouth breather, as there was no possibility that atmosphere could pass through the tangle of mangled tissue once identifiable as nostrils.

That was the good news.

The ledger of Phil’s military misery had expanded exponentially since that memorable night in the womb of Pandora’s Box. No official complaints had been filed, but an informal stream of grandiose tales had made their way across the vast expanse of Ft. Gordon. Each assumed a scope of legendary proportions. By the time the story filtered back to company headquarters, Phil and Bill’s misadventure has assumed the trappings of an epic poem on the scale of Beowulf. To the enlisted men, Phil was a majestic hero. To the brass, he had assumed a mantel of malevolence normally reserved for a classic antagonist, not unlike Beelzebub, the prince of demons himself.

Phil was therefore surprised only by the timing of his excoriation by the company commander. Usually the captain from Alabama’s backwoods was precise and surgical when administering humiliations to the young malcontent. Public floggings were his favorite, and Phil had lived through countless company formations during which he was the primary recipient of Captain Baker’s fulminations, always delivered within millimeters of Phil’s countenance. This time, apparently, the captain simply could not contain himself and wait for a communal execution. Upon hearing the rumors behind the news while sipping suds at the base NCO club, he underwent an instant permutation, leaving his humanity behind to emerge as unmodulated electricity. Such shapeshifting was made possible by the white hot loathing that he had developed over the last few months, ever since the insubordinate Private Ailill had emerged as the bane of his army career.

On a moonless night less than a week after the Incident, as Phil euphemistically referred to it, Phil had one again thrown himself into the mercy of his bunk. Moments after finally dropping to sleep amidst his latest round of agony, Phil felt the foot of his bed rise in seeming defiance of gravity. Before having time to adjust to this defiance of physics, his body became a projectile, catapulted like a medieval missile from a torsion-powered ballista. He landed, of all unpleasant places, flat on his face. Bleeding anew, he rolled over to find the distorted mask of the captain, replete with sour beer breath, inches from the inflamed tissue of his muzzle.

“Fell, did ya? Right into a good pistol whippin’, swat I hear!”

Phil became mesmerized by the small dollops of spittle that darted his way from the captain’s flapping beak. He recalled those Asian raptors he had seen photos of in National Geographic, and imagined that at any moment, the captain’s longing to devour him would overcome the man turned bird of prey, and he would begin gnawing at the center of his face. He remembered the article that went with the NG photos, about the “sky burial” of Tibetan Buddhists who dismembered their dead before giving the pieces over to the local buzzards on a mountain top. The thought of being digested by the redneck perched above him sent another spasm of wretchedness through Phil’s being. These meanders were abruptly interrupted as the captain clenched a fistful of Phil’s t-shirt, and lifted him to a standing position. It made Phil feel like a tissue puppet in the hands of a deranged four year old.

“Yew and yer stupid friend are on report! Article 15’s for the two of yew. “

Startled that there was enough space left between them to sustain the maneuver, Phil recoiled as the captain leaned in closer. Had Phil blinked, his lashes would have touched his commander’s grimacing visage.

“Guess yew know what that means, hey, shit fer brains?”


Phil looks up from his tool, wipes away streams of sweat with his sleeve, and stares at Bill, who is pretending deep engrossment in his work to avoid having to speak to his companion.

“Hey, I already told you. I am fucking sorry, okay? What more do you want from me, man?”

Bill continued to stare icily at the ground beneath his fingers.

“Look at it this way, pal; you didn’t have to wait till you got back to learn this new skill, one that will serve you well when you get out and must become a productive membrane of society.”

Despite his effort to retain a stoical expression, Bill’s face begins to soften. Phil is certain he notices the beginnings of a smile at each end of his friend’s pursed lips. Phil reaches over and lightly punches Bill in the upper arm, a gesture he has learned never to overdue, unless he wants a crippling blow in return.

“You’re a grass man now, pal. Yeah, a real class…grass man…”


Friday, June 27, 2008

Eat Too Much And Die
Based on several true stories
"LT" is Luba, a camp survivor.
"JR" is one of the children she saved.

Were the Allies really coming? During the first week of April, we knew everything was about to change. The sound of gunfire, air raid sirens and bomb explosions moving closer and closer seemed to tell us that the end of the war might be near, at least for Bergen-Belsen. The SS guards became strangely civil to us. I suppose they wanted to have us tell the Allies how good they had been to us during the final days. One of the SS officers, the one whose finger I had bandaged, told me he would make sure that the children got all the food they could eat, and he found a big pot for me to carry the food in, right out in the open. He filled it with bread, as well as meat and sugar which we had seen none of during our entire time in the camp, with the exception of the one time I got some horse meat for us to eat.

A few days later, we noticed other changes with the SS as well, and there were rumors floating around the camp that a plan was afoot to poison our food, maybe even to blow us up in the barracks while we slept.

In the days leading up to the Liberation, the SS guards started to wear white bands around their arms, a sign of their willingness to surrender without a fight. And they were not wearing guns anymore.

The day before we were liberated, April 15, 1945, British troops were outside the camp. We learned later that the camp Commandant, Josef Kramer, had made a deal with them to wait three days outside the camp before entering in order to avoid any fighting. The SS, he promised, would surrender without any problems. The allies smelled a rat and sent in a spy who found out that all the food in the kitchen that day had been poisoned. The SS wanted the extra time to poison us rather than see us set free. The Allied spy also found dynamite under many of the barracks. The decision was made to come into the camp without further hesitation.
On the day of the Liberation, I walked to the kitchen as usual, but it was abandoned; there was not one soul there. I left without taking any of the small amounts of food laying around. If the rumors about poisoned food were true, I did not want to take a chance with the children. On my way back to the barracks, I heard a loud speaker in the distance coming closer and closer. It was blaring out several messages over and over again in several languages. I will never forget the words I heard.

"You are free. You are free", the voice said again and again, in German, Polish, Russian, English, French, maybe Dutch, as well. "The SS are gone. No one will harm you any longer. Food and other help is on the way. Your are free; you are free!" My first thoughts were of the children, and I ran as fast as my legs would take me to the barracks to tell them the news. The Allies were here! We were free!

The allies came rushing in with two tanks only because their troops were not fully prepared to come in, and they wanted to make certain the SS would not poison us or blow us up.

I had a hell of a time getting to the fence because I couldn't walk very well, I was so weak from typhus. I crawled to the fence. Myself and several of the other children were gathered at the fence looking out on the main road of the camp. The camp had a wide main road that went through it, that could be seen from all the different camps.

There was a loud speaker that was making a series of announcements about the fact that we are being liberated. They were saying that everybody should be calm and we were not to worry, not to fear, that we would be getting good food very soon and that we should not eat the food that was given to us from the camp because it is all poisoned. The voice said not to drink or eat anything until we saw a person in an Allied uniform giving it out.

As I was standing at the fence watching these tanks come in, there was a man in the Canadian army right there on the first tank. The tank had stopped abruptly because these soldiers had not expected to find children, and they were shocked. I suppose this soldier, a captain, was even more surprised when he called out to us in Dutch, and we answered him in our language, his language as well. He was a Dutch man who had fled to Canada and joined the army. Here he was, looking at children from his own country.

His name was Montesanis, and he asked if I had ever heard that name because he thought that his wife and children were somewhere in our camp. None of us knew anything about the possible whereabouts of his family. We told him about the location of the general camp where it was likely to find such people as he described, if they were there. I do not think he ever found them.

An hour or two later the camp was flooded with British soldiers. We were overcome with emotion. Luba was jumping up and down with joy with her girlfriends and with some of the children. Everybody was very happy. I mean it was an unbelievable experience.

I have all my life been a God fearing person. At this moment, I saw an image -- I will not say it was God -- but I saw an image of an old bearded man.
"Don't stay with this," the vision of the old man said. "Turn the page and move on with your life."

I lay on the ground and wept.

The Canadian captain who was a Dutchman came to the barracks, and we talked about what had happened over the previous few months, with one of the children translating for us. The captain pulled a small chain from around his neck and presented me with a mezuzah.
"This has kept me alive the entire time I've been in uniform", he said. "It has kept evil away from me, and I want you to have it. Wear it, and it will keep you safe and healthy."
He kissed me, and lifted me up off the ground by the waist. We were all so happy. At the same time, I could tell that this man and the other soldiers were horrified at the sight of all the corpses laying around the streets of the camp. The SS had forced prisoners to bury as many bodies as possible before the Allies came, but there were too many to dispose of before the British troops came in. There were many, many unburied dead.

Corpses were piled right across the street from our barracks, across the alleyway. When you went out of the door from the barracks you would immediately look at all the bodies that were piled up there. Nude, by the way, because before the dead were picked up from each barracks and thrown into a wheel barrow for removal to the open pits used as grave sites, they were stripped of their clothes. And, you know, it was just a routine to take these bodies and throw them in there.

Several days after the Liberation, the British soldiers rounded up members of the SS and made them do the job that we Jews had been doing, that is burying all of the bodies that were laying there. They brought people in from the surrounding villages and forced them to watch.

From what I remember the SS were the same as when the shoe was on the other foot. They screamed and cried and begged for mercy just like we Jews had done.

It didn't make me feel in any particular way. I was numb. It was just the same thing I had seen before except now it was the SS that were doing it and it was not so apparent that it was the SS because none of them were wearing any shirts or jackets. They were all in their pants and naked from the waist up because the British, wishing to make their humiliation complete, had stripped them of their uniforms. They had no dignity left, they were not such big shots anymore, just people who were afraid, and for good reason.

Many of the women had sticks, and they were hitting the SS and carrying on. They were having fun, but I didn't particularly see it as a happy scene. I would have been happy just to see them shot. But this particular turnabout, I didn't spend too much time watching it.

One SS guard, an older man perhaps in his 60s, looked pale as he threw our dead into the ditch. He turned to me and said, "I cannot do this. I am hungry and tired."
I had some old bread still in my pocket from one of my trips to the kitchen.
"Untersturmführer, are you hungry?" I asked.
"Oh, yes!" he said.
"Here!", I said, thrusting the hard crust at him. "Eat this!"
"Das Kind", he said, "I cannot eat this." Never in all my years of unpleasant dealings with the Germans had any of them used the endearment "child" in reference to a Jew.
"Why not?" I asked. "This is what you gave us to eat. Why can't you eat it?"
He did not answer as tears welled up in his eyes. Was this cruel of me? Perhaps, but we had been mistreated by the SS for so long, it was natural to take some pleasure from their discomfort. My bad feelings for them did not last. It is easy to feel sympathy for any human when you see them suffer, even a member of the Allgemeine SS. Three days after the Liberation, a man in civilian clothes came to me with a letter. "I helped you once," it read. "Now please help me. I need civilian clothes so I can escape." It was from the SS guard who had told me I reminded him of his wife, the one who allowed me through the gate separating the men's camp from the women's camp. The one who knew I was taking food to the children each day and who did nothing to stop me.

Why not? I thought. Yes, he was an SS guard, a German, a man from a country which had tried to kill every Jew in Europe, but he was still a human being who needed help, and he had made it possible for me to keep the children alive week after week in those final days of the war. But I would have to be careful. If any of the other survivors knew what I was doing, they would probably kill me for helping a German.

I had some idea what size clothes he wore, and I found the things he needed amongst some of the survivors. We were free to move around as we wished, so I went to where he was hiding in a public toilet in the town outside the camp. I had a bundle with some bread, a tin of canned meat, and the clothes he requested. From outside the little building, I called out, "It's Luba; I've brought the things you need, plus a little food. Good luck. I hope you make it. I will never forget you. You saved the children."

There was no reply. I put the package on the ground outside the door and left.

After all we had been through, who would think that food would now become a problem? For some prisoners, the large amounts of rich foods available from the British were more than a problem; they were fatal.

There was an argument among some of the British army medical people whether to slowly feed us or to just give us whatever we could handle. The minute the Allies came in, their people gave us all the food we wanted, and there was an understandable tendency to eat too much of the kind of rich foods our bodies had not had in them for months.

The British soldiers were wonderful. They brought us chocolates and all sort of other foods. Many survivors, whose bodies had not been used to digesting much food, stuffed themselves with all that the British offered them, our liberators thinking they were doing a kindness to us. What should have happened, of course, is that the survivors should have slowly gotten used to eating good food. For my part, I would not allow the children to indulge themselves in this way, and some of the other women in the camp cursed me, saying I was being cruel by depriving the children of the good food that was available at last. But I knew their starved bodies needed to go slowly, and I am sure some of them would have died had I not insisted they eat little portions of only certain foods until they grew stronger. Each day, I would increase what each child was allowed to eat, a little bit more soup or meat today than the day before.

We got more than food as well. Much more; the British brought in nurses, doctors, and many others to help us. They moved us to the barracks where the SS had lived. What a difference. They had comfortable beds, with real sheets, clean sheets, and towels. They gave us soap and shampoo. The British wanted to bring everyone together so they could figure out how to get us to our homes, so more children were trucked in from surrounding camps -- Poles, Russians, Hungarians, French and others, some with their mothers, many orphans. The British soldiers made swings and other play things for the children. They brought busses into the camp and took us for rides around the countryside. It was a wonderful, exhilarating time.

We were all busy kids, busy being spoiled by these wonderful liberators. Everybody had their own soldier, their own buddy. Your buddy would come in the morning and hang out and give you chocolate and take you around in the jeep and try to do the things that kids liked to do.

In my case, because I was one of the older children, a Dutch soldier took me in his jeep and we went to Buchenwald. I can't remember what exactly for, some kind of official business. It was a three day trip back and forth. We stopped at farms along the way, and the soldier would take his gun out and force the German farmers to feed us. All the liberating soldiers were very angry at how we had been treated, and they were very rough with the Germans.

When we returned, Luba and the children had been moved into the barracks once occupied by the SS. These quarters were better than any of us had ever lived in during our entire lives. We all came from modest backgrounds, having lived in tiny apartments in Amsterdam, and this was a luxury building. There were clean sheets. There were beautiful kitchens with clean stoves, radios in the wall. The SS certainly knew how to take care of its own.

The children laughed, cried, talked and played a great deal. We were in shock that we had made it, that the SS were gone. At the same time, there was a lot of apprehension about what was next. Where would we go? How would we get home, those of us who thought there still might be such a place for us after all these years? I began to realize that my time with these wonderful children would eventually come to an end, something I never thought about before the Liberation. While I was happy that they would be reunited with their families, my heart was heavy because I knew that parting with them would be very painful. So much of our experience in the camps had to do with loss, and here I was about to experience loss again, one of the greatest losses of my life.

Germany surrendered on May 6, just three weeks after our liberation. That is something I remember very well, because I was so curious about what happened to Hitler. I can still see the face of the solider I asked.
"Do you know what happened to Hitler?" I pleaded.
"He committed suicide," he answered.
That was when I truly believed it was all over with at last.

It was right around this time, I think, that the Allied soldiers gathered us all together. They thought we would enjoy watching them burn the camp barracks to the ground. There has never been a more satisfying fire, I don't suppose, for any of us. The soldiers did it, they said, because the buildings were infested with lice and disease. I think they also did it as another way to make us happy.

We stood by silently and watched these lice-infested old buildings go up in flames and smoke. It was a way of both demonstrating to us that the evil was truly over, but it was also a matter of hygiene. Few of us seem able to remember events from our early childhood. But life in a concentration camp has a way of making strong impressions. One of the children who stood and watched the burning of the barracks was a five year old boy named Ronnie Abaham. Ronnie grew up to become a well-known painter. In the early 1990s, he presented me with an oil painting that depicts that day the barracks were burned. In it, you can see so much of the pain and darkness we all took with us from that place.

Once the barracks were gone, the children had received medical attention, clothes, and food, and the authorities began to look for their relatives, I knew it would not be long before we would be separated. I was determined to stay with them as long as possible, and the children let the Allied authorities know they wanted their Schwester Luba around too. Before we knew for certain when the day would come when they would return to Holland, the decision was made that I could accompany them back to their homeland. This way, they would feel secure with an adult they had come to trust and love, up until the time they could be reunited with family.

Luba now had more time than before when every moment of her day was spent taking care of all the children. She still took care of us, making sure the kitchen prepared the right food for us. She still wanted to be our mother. But the overall management of the kids was now in the hands of the Allies. Especially the Dutch among these Allied troops, and there were quite a few of these. Because we children were Dutch, the Dutch soldiers and other officials felt, I guess, especially responsible for us. They were very hands on about their management of the kids.

As far as all the children were concerned, Luba was still the adult we looked to as our primary caretaker. I don't think the Dutch authorities saw it quite that way.

About four weeks after the Liberation, a Dutchman whose name I think was Tienis came to us and said, "I'm trying to get a plane for you to get you kids back to Holland. Would you like that?"

Naturally, we all said yes because that was where we expected maybe to find our families. The next day, the Dutchman returned and said we were all going in a military plane leaving the next day at ten o'clock in the morning.

When the day of the trip back to Holland arrived, I was unsure what to do. Should I return with the children or say goodbye? If I did not go with them, where would I go? If I did go with them, what would I do in a strange country where I did not speak the language or understand the customs? The children had crowded around me each day, crying, begging me to travel with them back to their homeland. They told me that if I didn't like it in Holland, I could always return to Poland. Like anyone who loves their birthplace, they were certain I too would fall in love with Holland and want to remain there.

Finally, I decided to go, even though I did not get a very warm reaction from the Dutch authorities who now took charge of the situation. Hermina was to stay behind and care for another group of children who had been brought to the camp after the Liberation. The Diamond Children and I were told that nurses from Holland would accompanied us on the plane ride.

The plane we flew on made the flight a terrifying experience. It was not a passenger plane, but rather a troop transport, so we were strapped into harnesses along the sides of the plane, and some of the children were hysterical the entire journey. Many were so sick to their stomachs that the entire plane smelled of vomit. The noise of the engines was so loud, you could hardly hear someone speaking even if they tried to yell above the din. The children clung to me throughout the trip, rejecting any attempts at comforting them from the nurses or soldiers who were with us. None of the children knew for certain whether they would be reunited with their parents or other loved ones. The only thing they know for certain is that they were leaving the Nazis behind and were finally heading back to their homeland.

We landed in Eindhoven in the south of Holland, not far from the border with Belgium, although most of the children were from the Amsterdam area. There were a few relatives waiting there who had learned that the children were on their way, but most of the children were still unsure who if anyone from their family was still alive. A military truck came and took us from the plane. They placed us all temporarily in an old school house. They gave us some blankets, and we had to make do with sleeping on cots.

This was not a comfortable time for me, for the Dutch were not warm to me, which I found surprising in view of the role I played in saving the lives of so many of their children. Because of the language barrier, there were few words exchanged between the authorities and me when they came to claim a child. There would be a "thank you", and that was about it. While some of the British soldiers who were Jews could communicate with me by speaking Yiddish, I did not find one Dutch official who could speak to me in that language. The children were doing a lot of chattering, so I assume they were trying to explain who I was to the Dutch officials, and how I had become their "Schwester Luba", begging them not to separate us.

It is true that the reception Luba received was a cool one, but in retrospect, you cannot be angry. First of all, the Dutch were overwhelmed with the number of people that came back so quickly. Second of all, a lot of the people returning from the camps, as well as the people back at home, had been fighting for their lives, so everyone had a fierce attitude. Everyone was emotionally drained, and not very cooperative. If you said to them, "Get up tomorrow morning at six", they would give you an argument about that because they were all used to fighting every inch of the way. There was a wildness about almost everyone that you could see in their eyes.

These kinds of events don't unfold like they do in a storybook.. Sure, people were glad the war was over, but I think it had been so long since anyone had felt joy or gratitude that they did not know how to feel these things right away.
Everyone in Holland had just had a horrible experience with the occupation. And frankly, some of them may not have even liked Jews, that is another factor. The war was over, but some things never change.

After being in their country for a couple of days, the Dutch authorities found a translator for me, and I was finally able to communicate with the adults. They formally invited me to stay in the Netherlands, showing me a large, government-owned house that they said I could live in for free for the rest of my life if I wished. My first thought was that, while this was a kind and generous offer, what would I do alone in a strange country where I did not speak the language? The children were leaving me, one by one, and staying there would only remind me every day of their loss to me. I thanked the Dutch, but declined their offer. Some of the older children who had been reunited with their families came back to visit me, bringing me food, trying again and again to talk me into remaining in Holland. But I had no interest in staying in this strange, uncomfortable land.

While they may not have been overly expressive in their thanks to me, the Dutch authorities also gave me a document, a piece of paper that recognized my part in saving the children. It said that should I ask for it, the government or any of the people of Holland would give me any kind of help that I might ask for.

There were so many urgent problems that were facing us, and the situation became somewhat confused. Luba decided she wanted to go back. She seemed lost because the whole reception was a lot less ideal than we had envisioned. We always thought when we came back that the Prime Minister or the Queen would be waiting to welcome us. It would take a long time before people calmed down enough to become reflective about what had happened to them and to their fellow countrymen, children included.

At first, I was told that I could not return to Amsterdam right away because the bridges between Eindhoven and there were still out. But after two weeks or so, it was my turn to leave. I never really had much of a chance to say goodbye to Luba. Everything was happening so fast.

Although the older children could identify the younger ones, they were still the most difficult to place, and I ended up with some of the babies as the last of the children for me to take care of. As some of the children were processed for return to their families, their parents or other relatives often had had to come for them at night when they were asleep, so anxious were they over being separated from me. Daytime separations were often filled with tears and hysteria. This was understandable when you consider what we had been through and how I had become the central source of security for them over the past few months. When Jack finally left for a relocation center in Amsterdam, my heart sank. This was one of the worst days of my life up to that point.

After the last child left, I thought at first about joining my sister in Argentina. Then I considered that there were still many displaced children back in Bergen-Belsen, and I told the Dutch authorities I wanted to return there. I received some documents from the government that would allow me to travel from their country to wherever I chose to go. I felt completely lost, worse than I had ever felt during my days in the ghetto or in either camp. That may be difficult to imagine, but these children had come to mean so much to me that when the last one was gone, I felt as if my life had ended. I found myself wishing I had never been born, a thought that never crossed my mind during all the hard times in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Some of the older children would not end their campaign of trying to convince both me and the Dutch authorities that I should stay in their country, but my mind was made up.

I was told that I must catch an unscheduled flight that would land first in Nuremberg, Germany, and then fly on to Bergen-Belsen. At the time, of course, I had no idea that many infamous Nazis would be tried in Nuremberg, including the former commandant of Bergen-Belsen, Josef Kramer. He would be found guilty of war crimes and hanged.

The Dutch captain who gave me the mezuzah on the day of our Liberation took me to the little military airport at Eindhoven. Since we had no idea when the plane would pass through, the captain was kind enough to make a make-shift bed for me by taking out the back seat of his car and putting the cushions on the floor of the small building that served as a terminal. That way, I could sleep but would be ready whenever the flight became available. He waited with me, and about 11:00 PM that night which was sometime in late spring of 1945, we learned that a flight would soon land that could take me on my way.

When the plane arrived, the captain walked up to me and asked for my passport. I had none, and he was very surprised at this. The officer told me to give the captain the document which the Dutch officials had given me in Eindhoven. When he read what the government people had written, that I had saved fifty-two of their children, he put his arm around me and said, "You can fly wherever you want that this plane goes. I will take you with me anywhere you want to go -- London, if you like!"

When I arrived in Nuremberg, a woman soldier met me at the airport there, and we traveled many hours by car, arriving at Bergen-Belsen mid-morning. It was an incredible scene when we got there, something I had no reason to expect. Somehow, Hermina and the group of ninety-five children she was looking after had gotten word that I was returning. The car had to move slowly because the streets were clogged with flowers and children. I was stunned to see these children lining the streets and cheering me. They had tied flowers everywhere along my route. They were singing songs, and calling out, "Schwester Luba, Schwester Luba!" It was a real contrast to the greeting I had gotten in Holland, and it made me feel loved at a time when I really need it.

Some of these other children had been brought to me by the Germans in the final days before the Liberation. Others came to me in the days after the Liberation. The British would bring them to me whenever they found a stray Jewish child. They were from all over Europe, and the authorities were having no luck in locating their families. Or worse, they soon discovered that this or that child had not surviving family, that they were one of the millions of orphans who had survived the horrors of Hitler's Reich.

The question became one that has been with the Jewish people for thousands of years: where could they go? As if in answer to our prayers that these beautiful little ones too might find a place to call home, the government of Sweden announced that they were willing to take them in and find them homes. Hermina and I decided that this group of children also needed a loving escort. We would travel to Sweden, where I could meet another of the great loves of my life. Someday, I will tell you that one, too.