Vox Populi

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Peter Makuck: Day on the River

It was during Christmas vacation that I first met Mr. Talbot.  His son, Jean-Luc, was my good friend and classmate at a small Franciscan college in a French-Canadian enclave in Maine, a town and a college where townspeople, lots of students, and faculty had French for a mother tongue.  For a while I felt as though I was in a foreign country.  But the language appealed and made me want to learn more.  Anxious to try out my slowly improving French, I was happy to accept Jean-Luc’s invitation to spend a few days at his home in Scarsdale, New York.  We took a train into Manhattan every day to see movies and plays.  He and I were big into Existentialism and one night were yakking it up about an Ionesco play we had seen.  It was late.  We had just gotten back to Scarsdale.  Mr. Talbot had also just returned from Chez Robert where he worked as Maître d’.  Or Sommelier.  I wasn’t sure which.  At that point, I wasn’t even sure what those words meant.  Mr. Talbot was in the kitchen with a glass of wine, reading the New York Times.  His wife, Stéphanie, had already gone to bed.  This gentle, sweet woman would die of polycystic kidney disease in less than two years, leaving Mr. Talbot alone for seven more—until Claire called.

            Jean-Luc, a philosophy major, was quoting Sartre and Camus to the effect that life was absurd and there was only one truly philosophical question: whether or not to commit suicide. 

Mr. Talbot could take no more.  He put down the newspaper, looked at both of us, and said, “Écoutez-moi bien, mes enfants gâtés, vous n’avez aucune idée de ce qui est absurde.  Aucune.”  He rolled up his sleeve and I saw numbers tattooed on the inside of his right forearm.  He got up, left the table, and said, “Dormez bien.” 

I got everything but gâtés.  

“It means spoiled,” Jean-Luc said.  “We’re spoiled brats.”  He then told me that his father had been in the French Resistance, was captured by the Gestapo, and survived two years in the infamous Mauthausen camp, with its quarry and Stairway to Hell.

*

When I look up from my desk, I see on the wall a color photo of my father and Mr. Talbot, taken by his second wife Claire.  With Mr. Talbot’s arm around his shoulder, my dad is managing a smile.  They look almost like brothers—same height, build, and lots of white hair.  They are on the front lawn of the house where I grew up in Connecticut.  Pine trees and a red picnic table in the background, and a doghouse at the edge of the lawn to reinforce the Beware of Dog sign down by the driveway.  We had no dog, and the mailmen knew it.  The sign and doghouse were mostly my father’s sense of humor, but it kept salesmen and missionaries at bay.  The Talbots had driven all the way up from Scarsdale to spend time with him.  They took him out to lunch and dinner.  My mother’s funeral had been two weeks earlier, and I was back in North Carolina teaching my classes.  Until the Talbots’ visit, my father had been alone.

*

Over the years, Jean-Luc and I stayed in touch even though we lived worlds away from each other.  When his first marriage ended in divorce, he quit his teaching job, moved, and was working as a waiter in a French restaurant in Manhattan.  During one of our periodic phone calls, he told me he hated what he was doing.  He wanted to get back into teaching and work on a master’s degree.  I suggested he come to North Carolina.  I could help out.  So he did and was accepted into the M.A. program at the university where I taught.  To support himself, he also found a high school position teaching French. 

One hot spring weekend, Mr. and Mrs. Talbot had come down from New York to visit Jean-Luc.  My wife, Marie, had just come home from a morning class.  She asked what I was doing.  I told her I was going to take the Talbots for a ride in the Zodiac.

            “It’s not comfortable in that thing,” she said.  “And it’s blazing hot outside.”

            I explained that Jean-Luc was teaching all day.  What else could the Talbots do?  This would be something different for them.  And I had a low folding chair for Mrs. Talbot.  We’d drift down river to Little Washington, then power back up.  For lunch, I was bringing some wine, a baguette, and wide wedge brie in our picnic basket.  Plus a jug of ice water.

            Marie smiled and shook her head.  “Bon voyage.”

            “Ah, by the way, I’ve invited them to dinner,” I said.

            “Maître d’ at a top restaurant in New York City!  Do you realize how nervous that makes me?”

            “Trust me,” I said.  “He is not the least bit fussy or judgmental.  And I’ll help out.”

            She looked out the window.  “Okay, what about inviting Charlie and Arlette?  They speak French.  And Mrs. Talbot will like Arlette.”

            “Fine by me.  Do what you think best.”  Arlette was in the Foreign Language department, Charlie in History.  Charlie enjoyed his reputation for being unpredictable.  Ironic that he was from the Windy City . . . hot air blew constantly from his mouth.

*

            At the boat ramp on the Tar River, I inflated the Zodiac with a foot pump, attached the 15 hp Suzuki to the transom, then Mr. Talbot and I slid the boat into the water.  Mrs. Talbot sat in a low beach chair, Mr. Talbot and I opposite each other on the gunnels.  Down river we drifted, enjoying trees reflected in the black water, birds, sun, and quiet.  Very little boat traffic.  Live oak limbs hung far over the water with gray beards of Spanish moss and created shade pools, but with oars I kept us in the middle, in the sun.  A few weeks ago, a big water moccasin from an over-hanging limb plopped into the boat.   It took me a panicky few minutes to get rid of it with an oar.  That story I’d keep to myself.

            “Oh, que c’est beau!” said Mrs. Talbot.  “C’est comme un tableau.”

Mr. Talbot looked about, smiled, and sighed in agreement.  “Has Jean-Luc been out here with you?”

            “No,” I said, “but speaking of paintings, I’m sure he could paint this scene.  He has a ton of talent for painting and music and ideas.”

            “Less for paying bills on time,” Mr. Talbot said, “and remembering to put gas in his car.”

            Mrs. Talbot said, “But the thing most important he now is free of that crazy woman.”

             After a while, we opened the picnic basket.  Mr. Talbot popped a bottle of cool Chablis. 

“Madame,” I said, and handed Mrs. Talbot a hunk of baguette and brie.

“Merci, Pierre.  Mais fais-moi plaisir et appelle-moi ‘Claire’.”

“Bien sûr,” I said.

“And while we’re at it,” said Mr. Talbot, “everyone calls me ‘Marcel’.”

“D’accord.”  I was a bit uneasy using their first names but if it made them more comfortable, fine.

All of us had on short-sleeved shirts.  Again, I saw those black numbers tattooed on Marcel’s inner right forearm. Our skin was already beginning to shine with sweat.

I said I hoped it wasn’t too hot for them.  Claire said that hot weather has always been her favorite, especially after those freezing gray days in Ravensbrück.  Thin clothes and little to cover yourself at night.  “L’enfer, c’est un endroit froid.”

            Startled by her reference to Ravensbrück, I had trouble speaking for a moment, then said, “Maybe hell is a cold place, I’ll just have to wait and see.”

            They laughed. 

After a while, Marcel said, “I sometimes wonder if I would do it all over again.”

            Claire said, “Me, I believe you would do it again.”

            “How did you two meet?” I asked.

            Claire smiled and said, “We know each other depuis longtemps.  Long time.  We meet at the mairie.”

            “Town hall,” Marcel explained.  “We were both working there, and we became friends.”

            Claire winked.  “Marcel, he was a beau mec.  Very handsome, you know?”

            “And Claire was the office prize.  Typical Frenchman, I flirted with her.”

            Claire said, “We were both in the Resistance, but did not know.  How do you say? The left hand do not know what the right one does?  It was not safe to talk.  Marcel, you explain.”

            “Yes, but let me go back and explain why I was in the town hall.  Before I begin, let’s refill.”  Leaning forward, he removed the bottle from the picnic basket, and poured more wine in our plastic glasses.  On the back deck of a house overlooking the river, a woman in a blue bathing suit waved to us as we floated below. 

“When I was in the army,” Marcel said, “we got surrounded by the Wehrmacht and had to surrender.  This was near Belgium.  After a few days in the prison camp, I realized there weren’t many guards.  I decided I’d try to escape under the wire one night.  I went to a nearby farm for help and the farmer gave me clothes to replace my uniform.  It took me some time, but I made my way to Châteaubriant where my wife Stéphanie’s family lived.  Big surprise for them, but maybe trouble too.  Hiding an escaped prisoner, they could pay a price.  So they sent me to work on a cousin’s farm outside of town.”

            He took a sip of wine and watched the trees slide past.  Then he told me about a day of decision in October of 1941.   An SS officer was found dead on a street in Nantes.  On the radio, the Nazis said that if the killers didn’t turn themselves in within 48 hours, 100 Frenchmen would be executed.  When nobody surrendered, a roundup began from detention centers where different kinds of prisoners were being held—communists, citizens against the Vichy government, petty criminals, and so on.  The Nazis took 50 Frenchmen from Bordeaux, 23 from Nantes, and 27 from Châteaubriant. 

“I happened to be in town,” he said, “when three trucks holding those men about to die went down the main street.  Mon Dieu!  They were singing the ‘Marseillaise.’   In the back of open trucks, on the way to the quarry to be shot, and they were singing ‘Allons enfants de la patrie . . . .’  People in the streets stood still and began to sing with them, tears on their cheeks.  I got on my bicycle and rode after the trucks.  Two Wehrmacht soldiers stopped me.  They wouldn’t let me any closer.  I went back down the road, pushed my bike into the woods, and sat on a rock.  Quiet seemed to make their singing louder.  Then came the first round of gunfire.  Even after the second round, you could still hear the ‘Marseillaise.’  Then the third round killed it. 

When the trucks left the quarry piled with bodies, I went inside and saw the nine posts they were tied to.  Puddles of blood.  And on the bushes behind the posts were bloody patches of cloth hanging from twigs.  Dum-dum bullets ripped off the material.  Nine posts, three rounds of fire.  Nine times three: 27.  Germans are very systematic.  Then they ordered that three bodies be buried in each of nine of the villages surrounding Châteaubriant.”

Claire kept nodding her head, saying softly, “It is true what he say.  C’est vrai.”

            I was surprised he was able to talk about such a horrific experience.  My uncle fought in the Pacific, Iwo Jima, hand-to-hand combat.  According to my father, his brother came home totally changed, a different person.  After the war, when he tried to talk about it, to answer questions from his brothers, he began to cry and gave up.  After that, he became a heavy drinker, and never spoke of it again.

            A big speedboat was flying toward us.  I reached for the oars, but it was too late.  I recognized the guy standing at the helm.  He was a local televangelist who would eventually spend two years in prison for fraud.  Two women in bikinis had their arms around him.  He didn’t even slow down to reduce his wake as rules of the water require.  We rocked violently back and forth.

“Merde alors!” said Claire.  “Le salopard!”  The wake spilled her wine. 

Marcel laughed.  “Don’t worry.  We have another bottle.”

            We sipped our wine, munched our cheese and bread, and drifted quietly. 

            Jean-Luc had told me a few of his father’s war experiences, but I didn’t feel I had any right to ask questions.  But something made Marcel want to continue.  “After those Nazi revenge killings, I went to the mayor and volunteered my services.  I knew English from working on the Normandie.  When we were docked in New York, I would spend some time in the city and practice my English.  The mayor agreed I might be useful and gave me a job.  But you couldn’t trust anybody.  I didn’t tell him my real reasons for wanting to work in the town hall.  Identification papers were important to refugees, especially to Jews.  In town hall, I’d have access to lots of information.  And working there, I could get my hands on the official city stamp.  You know, you squeeze it like pliers, and it presses a raised seal into the paper?   I began to forge birth certificates and other kinds of papers.  I’d change names and write that so-and-so was from a town in the northeast that had been bombed, records destroyed.  The SS had no way of checking.”

            “Marcel, expliquez le réseau,” said Claire.

            Marcel looked at me.  “What is the English word for ‘réseau’?”

            “Ah . . . network,” I said.

            “Yes, network,” he said.  “Claire was a courier but I did not know it at the time.  With our Resistance network, even though Nazis tried to block General De Gaulle’s radio broadcasts from England about Allied victories, we found a way to receive those transmissions and record them.  Then we printed copies and secretly distributed them through our network to lift the spirits of the French.  We also made sure that German soldiers found copies in order to demoralize them.”

            Two young women in bathing suits went by us in a canoe.  One of them waved and called my name.  It was Regina Stuart, one of my literature students.  “I need to see you about the paper I’m writing,” she said.  I told her to come by my office tomorrow afternoon.  After she disappeared around the river bend, Marcel said, “Be sure to leave the door of your office open when you speak to that lovely young lady.”

            We laughed.  Claire wagged her finger at me with a big smile.  We were at a narrow part of the river that flows through the floodplain, its alluvial waters almost black, made even more so by a blazing white egret that skimmed the surface ahead of us from one bank to the other. 

We drifted, listening to birdsong.  Then Marcel told me that in the fall of 1943, he went at night with a few confrères to a drop zone to retrieve weapons and ammo being parachuted in by the Allies.  His activities were becoming more and more dangerous.  And he knew it.  More country people were aware of what was going on and might collaborate with the Germans to increase their rations. 

He was also involved in a network for American and Allied pilots shot down near Lorient and St. Nazaire where the Germans had built a submarine base.  The airmen were moved south past SS checkpoints from one town to another until they crossed over the Pyrenees into Spain, then managed their way back to England.

He laughed.  “One day I went to a specific street corner to meet two American pilots.  They weren’t in uniform, but one was smoking a Lucky Strike and the other still wore flight boots that were polished and looked like new.  Given the password, they knew who I was.  I quickly told one guy to follow me behind a café where I made him cut his boots down to the ankle and dirty them up.   And I told the other guy to put out the cigarette.  Gestapo were all around.  They wore civilian clothes, spoke fluent French, and blended in.  You were never certain where they were.  But anybody could spot these two airmen.  “And the smell of Virginia tobacco,” he said.  “That was also a dead give-away.  What were these guys thinking?”

            Ahead of us was a downed live oak limb that stretched almost to the middle.  I slid off the gunnel and took a few strokes with the oars to keep us from getting snagged.  When we had gotten around the fallen limb, Marcel said that one morning a friend of his at the city hall was taken away by two policemen who were likely “les amis de Fritz.”

Then it happened.  On January 18, 1944, there came a banging on his door at two o’clock in the morning.  He looked out the window.  Gestapo had the house surrounded.  Fortunately, his wife, Stéphanie, knew nothing of his activities.  After a few questions, they took him away, but left her alone in the house with Jean-Luc who was only two years old at the time.  About 40 people were arrested that night.

“The big surprise was Claire,” he pointed at her and they both smiled.  “Claire ended up in the back of a transport truck with me.  She was the only woman arrested.  I had no idea she was in the Resistance too.  At the triage center, after a few days, she was sent to the Ravensbrück camp.”  Claire’s face tightened, and she shook her finger, silently alerting him to go no further with her story.  But Marcel went on with his.  He was held for four or five days at a detention center in Compiegne.  Rough questioning turned into torture.  They wanted to find out where the downed pilots were taken, where the safe houses were.  They had him naked, tied to a chair in a dark room.  At odd hours they would wake him up, shine a bright light in his eyes, punch him, knock the chair over, kick him.  Again and again he said he did not know how the airmen arrived in town.  All he knew was where to meet them, what the password was, and where to take them.  Finally the SS gave up.  He had black eyes, swollen lips, bruises all over.  They put him on a train from France to Mauthausen in Austria.  The trip lasted five days.  There were at least 90 prisoners, naked and crammed in a cattle car, freezing cold.  Nothing to eat or drink, no toilet.  He was lucky to be at a small crack near the door and could get a little fresh air.  Two men died during the trip.  When they arrived at the camp, they had to stand in a foot of snow before they got coats, hats, and their black-and-white striped pajamas.

He looked at me and shook his head.  “God knows how I survived selection and did not get gassed with 20 others.” 

I was stunned.  We drifted in silence.  The river began to widen and spread out, no longer 50 or 70 yards from bank to bank.  Now it was more like a bay, the distance sharply jagged with the buildings of downtown Little Washington and the bridge. 

            “This is so beautiful,” Marcel said.

            Claire inhaled sharply, a curious French habit meaning yes.

I plopped the engine’s lower unit and prop into the water, squeezed the primer bulb, and twice yanked the pull cord.  Then we were on plane and speeding toward the boat ramp twelve miles upstream.  Claire had a wonderful fresh look on her face, her hair flying back.

                                                                        *

Jean-Luc had his evening philosophy course and wouldn’t be able to join us for dinner, so I drove to pick up Marcel and Claire from his apartment on the other side of the university campus.  On the way back, Claire asked, “Combien d’étudiants à l’université?”

            “About 15 thousand,” I said.

            Marcel asked if I liked living in the South.  I said that the culture and language interested me.  You often heard colorful idioms.  Local accents took me a while to get used to.  I said that North Carolinians were friendly, polite, and often said Yes, sir, yes ma’am in a way that reminded me of French formality, Oui, monsieur, oui madame.  If the English language had a formal “you” like “vous,” Southerners would likely use it.  And I loved some of their expressions.  Once, coming out of my office, I saw a very attractive co-ed sway down the hall like the girl from Ipanema.  Two guys near my doorway were watching her intensely and nodding.  Finally, one said, “Lord, have mercy!”  Wonderful expression, theologically perfect, something you’d never hear up north.  Marcel laughed and translated for Claire.

*

            Charlie and Arlette were at the house when we arrived.  Sporting standard khakis and a blue button-down, Charlie with his long nose and goatee prided himself on being a character.  Arlette was as tall as Claire, wore a lilac skirt, and had a beamy smile.  Arlette and Claire hit it off and, as they spoke, out came facial expressions and hand gestures I remembered from my year in France.

            Marie said to me,  “You’re just in time to open some wine.”

Before sitting down to dinner, as a joke, I had four different kinds of wine and covered the labels with duct tape.  I challenged Marcel to play sommelier and identify the wines and their origins.  He had a fine sense of humor and played right along, having no trouble distinguishing California from France, holding a glass of red up to the light, swirling it gently, smelling, and finally tasting.  Then he crooned a little James Bond: “Chateauneuf du Pape, 1980.  Village of Orange.  Grapes from the Poulin vineyard, third row of vines closest to the fence.”  His comment and improvised theater got a big laugh.  And, his identification of each bottle was just about right.

            Marie is a fine cook and was happy to hear good things about her seafood pasta, especially from Marcel.  We talked about our actor president, Iran-contra, New York, France, North Carolina, our river drift, films, and lots other things.   Charlie said that Ronald Reagan reminded him of an untranslatable pun joke: Il ne faut pas confondre un faucon avec un vrai con.  Everyone laughed, and Charlie continued: “Because now we have a vrai con in the White House.”  Arlette looked at him and said, “Charlie . . . that’s enough.”  Arlette and Charlie as a couple I could never fathom.

After dinner, over coffee and balloon snifters of cognac, things darkened, our faces shadowed by the flickering light of candles on the table.  Out of nowhere, Charlie asked Marcel and Claire if the trauma of the camps left them still depressed.  Why would he ask such a personal question?  Charlie had no clue about areas of avoidance.  After my mother died, when my father was visiting us, Charlie asked him if he was lonely, depressed, if he had plans to get involved with another woman.

            Claire smiled and pointed to Marcel.  He looked at Charlie and said, “I’ve always worked long hours.  If you keep busy, you’re less likely to be depressed.  But I do sometimes have flashbacks and nightmares.  I was especially depressed when my wife Stéphanie died.  Jean-Luc was grown up and gone from the house.  I was alone for seven or eight years, working in the city.  Then one day the phone rang.  It was Claire.”

All eyes shifted to Claire.  She had a wide smile.

Marcel continued: “We each thought the other had not survived.  I was living here in the States right after the war because I had worked closely with and translated for an American general, a great guy.  He helped speed up the visa process for my family and me.  Anyway, after liberation, I was back working in Le Havre and was out of touch with people in Châteaubriant, so I was really happy to hear from Claire.  She had followed her son Eric to New York.  And it was Eric who found my name on a list of camp survivors and where I lived.  Then, as they say, one thing led to another. Voilà.  Nous voici!”

            “That’s like a novel.”

            “Or a film!”

            We cheered, and hoisted our snifters.

            Charlie cleared his throat.  “Do you believe in God?”

            I couldn’t take it.  “Charlie, why don’t you ask what kind of toothpaste he uses?”

            Marcel asked Charlie if he believed in God.

            “No, I’m a proud atheist.”

            Arlette frowned and closed her eyes.  I knew she was a practicing Catholic.

            “I’ll tell you this,” said Marcel.  “There are no atheists in a death camp.”

             “Do you go to church?” Charlie asked.

            “I don’t.  But church has nothing to do with belief or God.”

            “Were there Jews in your camp?”

            “They were a minority,” Marcel said.  “Only about 2000 until late 1944.  Then their numbers multiplied.”  He frowned and shook his head.  “And they had it a lot worse than we did.”

            Then Charlie asked, “What was your worst memory?”

Arlette frowned, said nothing, but gave Charlie the old stink-eye.  He acted as if he deserved access to your private life, but ask him similar questions, and he was always dodgy.  I could get very little about his parents, their jobs, or how he grew up in Chicago.  Charlie looked at me and said, “Hey, I teach history.  This is history, first hand.  I’ve never met anyone who’s been through what these people have.”

            “Well,” Marcel said.  “There are so many memories, all bad.”  Then he described a cold gray day when new prisoners arrived.  There were the usual selection lines.  If the person lucked out and went to the right, it was Marcel’s job to lead the guy to a designated barracks and let him know what to expect.  Prisoners pushed to the left quickly went to the gas chambers; then their bodies were dragged and carried by other prisoners to the crematorium.  On this particular day, there was a young father in the right line.  He asked an officer with a baton and shiny boots when he could see his two sons again.  The officer pointed to the chimney, and said, ‘They’ll be coming out up there in a few minutes.  You’ll see them.’  And laughed like an idiot with another guard.  It was one of those days with no wind.  Smoke just hung in the air with a horrible smell, was thick and sticky and clung to your skin.

            “And there were single executions,” Marcel said.  “We had a kapo—do you know what the kapos were?”

            Charlie said, “Collaborators.”

            “Of the worst kind,” said Marcel.  “They were prisoner trustees who won the confidence of the SS and were just as sadistic.  Some were French.  And they would rat you out to gain a few more favors from the officers.  I had to stay off the kapos’ radar because I worked in the kitchen, in the officers’ mess.  With access to food, unlike other prisoners, I stayed fairly healthy.  But I used the situation to smuggle out food to guys who were sick.  I hid soup in a wheelbarrow under a pile of ashes from the wood stove.  A friend would come into the kitchen and take the wheelbarrow out to be emptied.  Of course, he was part of the smuggling crew.

            “And there was another kapo—I can still see him.  He carried a wide snow shovel and followed an officer.  When the officer pulled out his Luger and shot a kneeling prisoner in the head, the kapo covered his shiny boots with the shovel so they wouldn’t get spattered with blood.”

            The room froze for a long moment, then thawed back to life.  Charlie blew out a loud breath.  “Terrible, terrible.  Was there anything funny that ever happened?”

            “Looking back, I suppose the way I got my job as chef was funny.  A rumor circulated about me being a cook.  A few prisoners knew I had been a steward aboard the SS Normandie before the war and had briefly been in the brigade de cuisine.  The chef for the SS officers was an old guy who got sick and couldn’t cook anymore.  Somebody had to fill in.  The rumor about me reached one of the SS, and I was summoned to the mess.  I felt I had to lie about my experience or my fellow prisoner who told the officer would be punished.  I stood at attention.  The officer asked how I would go about preparing carrots.  I said, ‘Sir, first I peel and slice the carrots.  Then I boil water, add butter and salt, put in the carrots.  I cover the pan, and let them cook for seven or eight minutes, or until the water evaporates.’  The officer massaged his chin and looked at me for a moment.  Then he said, ‘Sehr gut.  Sie haben die Stellung.’ Translation: ‘You’ve got the job’.  But I was not a cook and scared to death half the time.  Every night I talked to the old chef in the barracks.  He gave me careful instructions about how to prepare this and that.  When he got better a month later, I was so happy to have him back in the kitchen.”

            We all laughed. 

Arlette said that it was getting late.  She had an early morning class.   But Charlie had one more question.  “Did you ever kill anybody?”

            Before I could say anything, Arlette said, “Alors, ça suffit. T’es fou?”

            Marcel managed a laugh.  “No, I didn’t, but there were a number of officers and kapos I would have been happy to kill.”

*

            Marcel and Claire offered to help clean up, but it had been a long day for them.  And that was my job.  They looked tired.  When we arrived at the apartment house, Jean-Luc’s car wasn’t there.  He was likely still philosophizing with his professor.  Marcel said, “There is one more thing I want to tell you.”

            Claire said, “Excusez-moi.”  She asked for the apartment key, laughed, and said she needed to visit the “little corner.”  We watched her climb the stairs and open the door.  After the living room light went on, Marcel said, “I couldn’t say this at the dinner table in front of strangers, but I have known you for years.  You are like a second son.”  He paused.  “One last thing.  I apologize.”

            “I should be the one to apologize,” I said.  “I should have stopped Charlie from asking you those questions.”

            He told me not to worry.  “Charlie is not a bad person.  Some people have morbid curiosity that needs to be fed.  You are not like that.   But I will answer Charlie’s last question.  There was a kapo responsible for the execution of three of my very close friends.  With four of my confrères, we promised each other that if one or all of us survived, that kapo would pay.  The war was almost over.  Americans didn’t liberate the camp until May 6th around 11 in the morning.  But, a few days before, rumors spread that the Allies had landed.  Patton’s 3rd Army was getting close.  The SS started disappearing, leaving kapos in charge.  The kapos knew what was happening.  They started taking off too.  I was ready.  With a knife from the kitchen, I began chasing that kapo.   He paced himself, looked over his shoulder, and ran faster.  But he couldn’t get away.  After maybe a mile or two, he stopped.  I caught up with him on a riverbank outside of town.  He turned around and began to beg, make excuses.  My ears were blocked.  I was exploding with rage and could focus on only one thing.  To this day, I can still see the water turning red with blood and his body floating downriver . . .” 

He stopped talking and looked straight ahead through the windshield at the light in the living room window.  “And I wish I had never done it.  Worst thing I’ve ever done.  I tell myself I made a promise.  I had a pact with others.  That the kapo was responsible for our friends being killed.  But to this day, I still wish I had never done it.”

            I wanted to say something, but the story left me without words.  Knowing Mr. Talbot for so long, I never saw it coming.  The only thing I managed to say was, “What you did is perfectly understandable.”

            The quiet in the car was as deep as the dark outside.  Finally, Marcel opened the door.  The interior light came on and his smile returned, but it wasn’t the same.  “Listen, you and Marie come here tomorrow night and I’ll make dinner.  Jean-Luc will be free.  No more talk about the camps.  I wish I could be like Claire and keep my mouth shut.  She went through a nightmare too.”  He took a deep breath.  “De toute façon, à demain soir, vers six heures.  D’accord?”

            “D’accord,” I said.

            I drove away wondering, wondering how Mr. Talbot could smile at all given what he had been through.  I also began to wonder if Jean-Luc knew about that kapo.  Jean-Luc had told me some stories about his father, but not that one.  I would never ask him about it and still wonder as I sit here, and look at the photo above my desk.  Both my father and Mr. Talbot are smiling.  But whenever that spring day on the river replays itself, I understand more than ever why he drove up to Connecticut to spend time with my father.


Copyright 2021 Peter Makuck

Peter Makuck’s many books include Wins and Losses: Stories (Syracuse, 2016).

One comment on “Peter Makuck: Day on the River

  1. Rosemary Roenfanz
    December 21, 2021

    no words……….simply none…………

    Liked by 2 people

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