Sometimes In This Life Opening Chapter

October 1919

Henrich Stendal was lying on the bed and slowly drifting off to sleep.  He could feel the engines turning in fine rhythm and the huge ship cutting through the ocean like a scythe through wheat—moving forward, inexorably forward.  There was no turning back.  There never was.

He had almost fallen asleep when the man’s face appeared, his mouth open.  The man’s tongue was protruding out slightly to the left.  The eyes were dull—not questioning, not comprehending.  They were looking up to Henrich, still at that point having no idea.

And then Henrich was awake.  But he didn’t move.  He did not stir.  He did not get up.  He let the rhythmic movement of the ship lull him back to semiconsciousness.

He knew his wife and mother-in-law were in the next room of their two-room suite on the second deck.  He’d paid a pretty penny for it, but then he had the money.  He could have had the top deck but did not want to draw any attention.  They could all be comfortable here and go unnoticed.  He knew his daughter was not there, because if she were, he would have been able to feel it.  There was something about her beside her budding fourteen-year-old beauty and her rich auburn hair, that always reminded him of the forest in the fall, something he could not quite understand but could always feel.  There was something in her demeanor, something in her being, something calm, gentle, good, and caring.  If she was just anywhere nearby, he was happy and content in a way that he could never, ever remember feeling.  She could just be sitting, reading, or knitting on the other side of the room.  He did not even need to talk to her or be aware of her in any other way than her just being somewhere near.  He had never been a particularly religious man, not even before the war, but she made him believe that, beyond all the pain in this life, there could still be something ever so precious.  There had to be a God.

He caught his breath, and a smile ran through him warmly and deeply, even if it didn’t turn his lips.

Away in the war, he had missed her more than his two sons, more than his wife.  No, she wasn’t outside in the other room.  If she were, he’d know it.  She was probably up on deck getting some sun, feeling the wind and the ship cutting through the water.  His mind found a sense of mirth as he realized the little bastard would be up there too—the youngest one, the dark one, who Henrich was not sure was his own.  He would be darting all over the deck in search for something.  The little, dark one was curious and observant—too observant.

Henrich’s eyes opened slightly at that thought but then closed and he drifted off to his afternoon nap.

October 1979

Daniel Henry Stone sat in the car.  It was Monday morning, the start of the workweek.  He was early but he could see that Cassidy, his boss, was already there.  Cassidy’s dark blue Chevy, the company car, was parked in front of the little construction trailer that had become their office.

It was a beautiful day, the kind of perfect weather you got in New York City at this time of year.  This early in the morning the temperature would be in the midsixties and wouldn’t get any higher than the low seventies.  The sun was out, the sky was a beautiful shade of blue with just some light, wispy clouds, and it was as good a day as any to get fired.  And, he was going to get fired as sure as God made little green apples.  You simply couldn’t punch out the assistant building manager on a Friday night and not get fired.

It wouldn’t be the first time he’d gotten fired for punching someone out, but that other time was different.  He’d wanted to punch that guy out, and he’d done it in the office where he worked.  And that wasn’t much of a job, just taking orders for ads over the phone for some small-time paper in Forest Hill, the Forest Hills Shopper.  It was a weekly, and there were only a couple of articles in it.  The rest of it was a bunch of ads for the local stores.  But it did run a few obituaries.  He’d even written a few of those, thought it didn’t pay much.  After that, he was back to cooking and bartending, which is what he usually did.

He turned over his latest fight in his mind again.  He couldn’t see how he could have avoided it.  It involved him, Cassidy and Milton Cooper, the assistant building manager and ex-heavyweight contender.  Danny himself was only a middleweight.  Cooper was maybe two or three inches taller than Danny’s own five feet eight inches, but Cooper had to be over 210, which gave him a fifty pound advantage.  Most of it was in his middle.

They were in the Old Bailey in Kew Gardens having their payday-Friday after-work drink.  It was the perfect place because Cassidy could have his drink and then jump on the Van Wyck nearby and be home in Long Beach twenty minutes later.  It was also good for Cooper, who could drive home to Jamaica Estates no more than ten minutes away.  And it was perfect for Danny because he lived around the corner and up the block.  They’d done this half a dozen times, and all had gone well.

Cassidy didn’t really drink, which went against the Irish stereotype.  Danny had noticed that Cassidy would sip the drink a little and then let all the ice cubes melt and take off.  He’d always buy the first round too.  Cassidy had been a construction foreman, and he looked like one, with his broad shoulders and his big strong hands that had seen a lot of work.  He had done that for years before he’d gotten into real estate and managing buildings so it was his way of having one with the men.

Cooper could drink—that was for sure—and that also went against type, as he was supposed to be Mr. Upright Protestant Man.  Work hard, go to church, and be a member of one their groups, the knights of something.

Danny couldn’t stand Cooper.  Cassidy didn’t like him much either; he could tell that much.  But Cooper was a member of those Knight—was it Templar?  No.  Those had been real knights in history.  No, these were the knights of something else…  Columbus?  Pythias?  Something.  Whatever it was, the old man who owned the real estate company, Michael Mills, was a big shot in that thing, which Cooper like to remind people of from time to time.

Danny’s big mistake was that he hadn’t left one drink after Cassidy.  That was what he usually did, but then Brian the bartender told him that Virginia was coming on in an hour.  The idea of having a few with the very beautiful and alluring Ms. Panama 1972 was too intriguing to just up and leave.  She had that rich black hair, hat incredible skin the color of coffee tempered with cream, and those black eyes to match.  Those eyes would dance if he could get her to laugh, which he could do.

He had no plan to actually date her, as he knew she was dating a supreme court judge who was in the process of divorcing his wife for her, but he knew she liked him and thought he was cute—no beautiful.  She would say that too, because in an odd way, they looked alike, even though she was from Panama and his family from Eastern Europe.  They had the same black hair, though her’s was darker, and she had the same dark complexion as he did, his was just a shade lighter.  His eyes were blue and her black, but they both had a beauty mark in the same place on their left cheek.  Because of these similarities, they would tease each other by saying the other was beautiful.  A couple of drinks with her was worth sitting next to Cooper for a little while longer.

Cooper hadn’t even been talking to him.  He was talking to O’Malley, a fine, white-haired old gent who looked like a judge in one of those old black-and-white movies; tall, slim, and refined.  His demeanor belied the fact that he’d flown twenty-five missions in Europe in one of those B-17s.  He’d been a navigator.  Then he’d come and very quietly made a million or two selling homes in Kew Gardens.

Cooper, with his curly, black, probably dyed hair that was beating a hasty retreat to the back of his head and his thick, black glasses perched halfway down his nose, was yakking about the next year’s election and how Jimmy Carter was going to get reelected—period.  Cooper was opinionated and was some kind of something in his local Democratic club, so he loved President Carter.  But he wasn’t in his meeting hall, and everybody knew you did not mix alcohol with religion or politics—everyone who had any common sense, that is.  Danny himself didn’t much care who was president and had no reason to butt in anyway, other than that he would have liked it if Cooper had shut up or just toned it down a bit.  O’Malley was an old-school gentleman, so he would never start a fight.  But the bad thing was, someone who you didn’t even know was listening might get all pissed off and come over, and a fight would ensue.  That was why, if you had any sense, you did not mix alcohol with religion or politics.  People got crazy.

All O’Malley said was something about the high interest rates and how people didn’t want to take out mortgages.  He’d mentioned how hard it was to borrow to do business and how you needed to borrow to do business.  At that point, Cooper got really loud, as he was on his fourth drink.  But O’Malley did not raise his voice or do anything.  That was the weird part.  It was Cooper who got off the barstool and hit O’Malley for seemingly no reason at all.  He hit an unsuspecting, older man right in the nose and probably broke it.  O’Malley was more stunned than anything.  He hadn’t even moved out of the way of the punch, as he just didn’t think it was coming.

But then Coopoer turned around to Danny and said.  “And you!”  Then he threw a right hand right at Danny.  Danny had been too close to move out of the way.  He could have blocked it, but instead, he did the smart thing: he moved his head down, making the top of his head the target, and moved into the punch.  Cooper’s hand came down short of where he thought it would, short circuiting most of the force of the punch and crushing his hand up against the hardest part of the human body, the skull.

Then as Cooper screamed in pain and shook his hand, Danny took those precious moments to move quickly back and away from Cooper and the bar, giving himself some space.  Then he quickly stripped off his sport coat, and that voice came on it his head, as it always did when he got into fights or other tight spots in his life.  That voice, which whispered to him, came on now and reminded him that when in action, he must always have the earth firmly beneath him.  He had to have balance.  So he held up his left hand as if he were warning Cooper to stop, but really, it was to put his weight on the ball of his left foot to set up the right hand.  If Cooper had stopped there, Danny would have as well but the idiot came on screaming.

“You little prick!”

Then the voice came on again, telling Danny to take that extra split second and then go into action with everything he had.

Using his left hand to block Cooper’s vision, he curled his weight from his left leg back onto his right leg and then shot the right hand under Cooper’s eye level and into his gut.  He was going for the solar plexus to end this as fast as he could.  Fighting in a bar was not smart.  Someone else could always join in.  He’d gotten all his weight behind the punch but missed his target just slightly.  The punch went in under the solar plexus and then came up, either because Cooper had moved forward or because of something else he couldn’t calculate and Danny snapped it hard into Cooper’s gut.  Cooper’s mouth opened, his glasses went flying, and he spun away and into the bar stools, stumbling down onto the floor as the bar stools fell all around him.  It had been a helluva a punch.

Danny could see Cooper on all fours, spitting up something red and frothy, something mixed with blood.  Maybe it was his drinks, maybe something else, but by now, he didn’t much care.  He looked at the bar and his own just-poured shot of Chivas on the rocks that he hadn’t even touched and that was just sitting there all virgin and shook his head.  Brian, the bartender, was looking at him, and his eyes said.  “You’ve got to leave, fresh drink or not.”

Danny nodded his head and just said one thing.  “Coffee cup?”

Brian nodded, got a Styrofoam cup, poured the drink into it, and put a lid on it.  You couldn’t walk out of a bar with a drink in hand, but a cup of coffee no one would notice. He left a twenty on the bar as if that would somehow make it all okay.  He knew it would not and that he’d better not come back there for quite a while, maybe ever.

When he got outside, he could see the limo with the tinted windows and the rather large, metal Supreme Court Justice logo attached to the bumper stopped at the fire hydrant about fifteen yards away.  He knew to just keep moving.  Maybe Virginia would like him punching out some dumb-ass customer, but then again maybe she wouldn’t, especially with the judge around.  She’d hear about it—that was for sure.

Now as he sat in his car on Monday morning waiting to find the nerve to go get his ass up and face the music, he just couldn’t see how he could have avoided it.  The guy had come for him.

October 1919

Henrich stood on the deck of the ship.  He could feel the cool night air, feel and smell the ocean all around him.  It was something he had never known before.  He could feel the ship cut through the sea, resolute and unyielding.  There was hardly anyone around, just the crew going about their business.  He took his watch from his vest pocket and opened it.  It was four thirty in the morning.  He’d slept enough.  He looked out over the water as it passed.  The engines of the ship never stopped and never tired.  They did not depend on wind or any other force of nature.

Somewhere out there, there had been a full moon, but it had been hidden by the clouds that hung low in the sky.  Now even if he had been able to see it, it would be beating a hasty retreat as the dawn approached somewhere behind him and the ship’s engines turned inexorably forward—forward toward the future, toward the unknown, toward America.  You could never look back.  You could learn from the past and gain many things from it, since the past could teach, but it was just that: the past.

His left hand closed over his right, and he felt for the middle knuckle, where his trigger finger ended.  He’d lost that piece of his finger as a child, and that had kept him out of the trenches years later.  The first time they had come for men for the war, they took one look at his right hand and left him alone, but a year later, after many dead, they took him and just about every other man in their hamlet of Vydumanec, Hungary part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

They assigned him to the captain as an orderly, which meant he took care of the captain’s horse, boots, and anything else the captain needed.  The captain, who had come over from the German army, had been very proficient and had seemed to know what he was doing in the war, so they made him a colonel.  In turn, they had to make his orderly a corporal so he could take good care of the colonel’s horse, boots, and anything else that the colonel needed.  When the battles ensued, Henrich had helped with the wounded and the dead.

And there were plenty of dead.  There were the dead and the dying and the ones who would live and be dead inside, which was all of them who survived.  The hospital tents looked like slaughter houses, with the pieces of the dead everywhere.  He had carried them on stretches while they were still alive, and he had buried them afterward when they were not.  But it kept him out of the trenches, that missing digit—his trigger finger—and it was the reason that he was still walking this earth.  He knew you could still do many things after you’d died inside.

As he looked out over the water, he could see the clouds dissipating and stars peeking through the lightening sky.  It was a beautiful night.  You could have nights like this, but then there were the memories.

They had come for him, three of them running through the cold and the mud of no man’s land, and it had all started out so simply, so routine.  The colonel with his staff of two junior officers, their orderlies, and Sergeant Dietz with two of his men.  They had gone off to look at the ground to the right of their flank, as there was a space out there out there between them and the next division.  It was late in the afternoon.  It had rained hard the night before, and it was still drizzling on and off.  The dead and the dying leaves of autumn lay all about.  The officers and the soldiers rode horses, while he and the other two orderlies rode mules and stayed carefully a few meters to their rear.  They followed a trail through the forest till they reached an area just beyond their right flank.

The colonel didn’t like it, and as they came out of the tree line, he pointed out the ground to the junior officers, showing them why.  Sergeant Dietz and his men formed a slight semicircle as a guard in front of the officers.  No one even heard the gunfire.  It could have been because random gunfire and machine gun fire was somewhat constant out there and echoed all over, or it could have been just that sound is a strange thing and its waves can be easily muffled or misdirected.  But no one seemed to hear the gunfire, just the men and the horses tumbling under its onslaught.

The colonel’s horse, which Henrich had taken care of for the last three years, was just a touch high strung, and that was the only thing that saved the colonel’s life.  The horse had reared when he saw Sergeant Dietz and his men falling and consequently took the bullets in his belly that should have cut the colonel in two.

But then the horse fell back down, pinning the colonel under him.  Henrich and the other two orderlies had been in a slight depression slightly behind the officers.  They didn’t even notice the shots, which passed over their heads.  They could hear them smacking into the trees and hear the zip, zip, zip as they passed over head.  The other two orderlies spurred their mules into action, or tried.  The first mule took off.  The other mule much, like Henrich’s own didn’t’ move.  That orderly jumped off his mule and ran.

Why he didn’t do the same, Henrich had no idea.  He had assumed they were all dead.  Maybe it was the horse.  He could hear that horse whinnying.  He had groomed that horse, washed that horse, mucked his stall, and taken care of him every day for the last three years.  This horse loved the apples Henrich would give him when he could find them, and his black eyes would light up when Henrich fed them to him.  Actually, those black eyes would light up anytime Henrich would come to him.  The horse knew who took care of him.

He had climbed off his mule and gone to the horse to comfort him, he guessed.  It was then that he realized the colonel was alive.  As he reached the horse, he heard the colonel whisper.  “Hilf mir Henrich.”

He noticed that the colonel had called him by his first name for the first time in those three years.  He gazed around and saw nothing and no one.  The shots must have come from a few hundred meters away.  Low and crawling on the ground, he figured he was in no immediate danger.  So, he began to pull the colonel out from under the horse, but that caused the horse to whinny louder and begin to squirm.  The colonel’s eyes almost bugged out of his head, so Henrich stopped.  He went to the horse and began to stroke his head.  He looked into the horse’s eyes and could see fear and pain.  He tried his best to calm the horse down and saw resignation in those eyes and then he saw the light in them die, as he had so many other times in too many living beings.

Then the colonel whispered again, but this time with a sense of fear and alarm.

“Henrich!”  He pointed.

That’s when Henrich could see the three of them, trudging through the mud bobbing up and down as they traversed the many depressions and little hills of the empty field.  Slovaks.  They were coming for him.

Read the rest here:

https://www.amazon.com/Sometimes-This-Life-Don-Frankel/dp/1480845264

 

 

 

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