a short story by Kal Wagenheim
Kal knocked at the door of the second floor apartment on West Kinney Street in Newark and his Great-Uncle Murrey opened.
Murrey, a big cigar clamped between his teeth, was a dapper-looking fellow in his eighties, with neatly combed silver hair, well-pressed sports shirt and slacks, and glistening black shoes. Holding a cane in his right hand, he motioned for Kal to enter.
"Hey, kiddo. How ya doin?"
"Hi Uncle Murrey." Kal raised the small tape recorder in his hand. "Remember, I said I wanted to interview you?"
"Oh yeah, right. Senior moment!"
"Where's Aunt Lily?"
"Out shopping. Come, sit down! Can I get you something to drink? Soda? Whiskey?"
"Not right now, thanks. Maybe later."
They entered the modest, neatly arranged living room. Murrey, gripping the cane, limped over to the large easy chair in the corner, next to the lamp table, and settled back, smiling at his grand-nephew.
Kal sat in a chair opposite him, resting the tape recorder in his lap. He clicked it on. "I wanted to ask you about how you were wounded in the war and got the Purple Heart…"
"Geez! That's so depressing! Maybe after a few drinks to cheer me up!"
Murrey rose. "I'm gonna make myself a whiskey and soda! How about you? Same? On the house!"
"OK!" said Kal, laughing. "We'll get bombed together!"
Murrey limped away into the kitchen and returned with two glasses of whiskey and soda. He handed one to Kal, sat down and raised his glass in a toast. "Cheers!"
"So!" said Kal, lifting his glass, "I hear you're moving to Pennsylvania?"
"You've been in Newark a long time..."
"Oh yeah...but I was born across the river, in New York. My mom and dad, your great-grandparents, they came from the old country a long time ago." Murrey smiled, and in his frequent kidding tone, he asked, "What's this for, Kal? You planning a best seller?"
"Nah. I wanna put together a family history. When I was a kid, I remember Granma telling me stories about the old country, a placed called Bess-ah-RAH-bee-ya…"
"Yeah, it's somewhere near Russia."
"How scared they were when the Cossacks came riding in on their horses. 'Po-GROM,' she would say. 'Po-GROM!' It was fascinating! God, if only I'd been able to tape it! For the family. My kids, and their kids!"
"Must've been around 1890 when they got off the boat to New York. I was born a couple years later, and then your grandma Lillian, and Davey, Eddie, and Carlie, the nut..."
"Where in New York?"
"You know where Fulton Fish Market is? Down on the lower East Side?"
"Sure. They have this big South Street Seaport nearby now!"
"We lived just a few blocks uptown from the Fish Market. In the summer, we used to swim in the East River!"
"The streets were our playground. In those days, the tenements didn't even have toilets. Just outhouses in the backyard."
Laughing, Murrey recalled, "The new people from Europe, real country greenhorns. Some o' them were too lazy to walk downstairs. They'd pee and crap in buckets, and toss it right out the window. If you were playing down on the sidewalk you hadda watch your step!"
"I guess times were tough..."
Murrey shrugged. "There was always food on the table. My father worked in a butcher stop and your Granma cooked and took care of us kids."
"And now you're going off to Pennsylvania..."
"Lily's got family out there. Nice folks. She says there's senior housing in Wilkes Barre. Real good deal. Will you come to visit?"
Kidding again, Murrey said "Better come soon. I'm getting on in years..."
"C'mon, you look great!"
"Just so you know. When I hit the bucket, I want 'em to make a special casket, with an extra little box up front by the head, so they can bury me with the cigar in my kisser!" He laughed.
"I'll be sure to tell them. . .Uncle Murrey, I remember once you told me you served in the infantry in World War One, and got wounded..."
"Messed up my leg real bad. Real bad. I spent lotsa time in the VA Hospital. Before the Army I was thinking of maybe trying my luck in vaudeville..."
"Vaudeville! You're kidding!"
"I could sing, and dance, but with the bad leg...and showbiz isn't exactly easy to make a living... Back in those days, if you were an actor or a singer, they looked at you like a real low-life scum, not like today!"
"So what did you do after the Army?"
"I was lucky. Got a steady job as a bartender, a tavern over on Washington Street, a few blocks from here. I stayed there until I retired."
"Well, you made a living..."
"It was kinda like showbiz, with all those crazy customers. I'd serve 'em drinks. If the radio was playing a nice tune, I'd do a little song and dance behind the bar, and they loved it." Murrey rose slowly from the chair, grabbed his cane, did a brief soft shoe dance, and sang: "A pretty girl is like a melody...." Chuckling, he recalled, "Sometimes, two idiots at the bar would get into an argument. Over some stupid thing. I'd say: 'Listen guys, pardon my French, but opinions are like assholes. Everybody's got one!' They would laugh, shake hands, and buy another drink! I made good tips, too!"
Kal raised his glass. They both drank.
"Ah," Murrey said. "That's good!"
Kal pointed to a small black box next to The Star-Ledger newspaper on the lamp table. "I notice you always keep that Purple Heart medal nearby..."
"Geez!" said Murrey, laughing. "You're persistent!"
Murrey opened the box, pulled out the medal. He turned serious. "When it's my time to go, I'd like to keep it in the family...."
"Sure. Can you tell me how it happened?"
"It was so long ago, way before you were born. I was real young...a foot soldier on a battle field in France. One dark night, a bomb explodes nearby...shrapnel tore up my leg real bad.
"I crawled along with my rifle, down into this huge bomb crater and lay there, bleeding, waiting for things to calm down. In the dark, I make out another body just a few feet across from me in the crater. It was a wounded German soldier! He was a young guy, shivering with the cold. Probably scared shitless, just like me.
"We stayed awake for hours. Every once in a while a bomb would explode in the sky up above, and we could see each other's faces. All the while, just in case, I kept my hand near the trigger of my rifle. He had his rifle next to him, too.
"I didn't speak German, and he didn't speak English. I knew a little Yiddish, which is kinda like German. So I shrugged, and said 'Ich nich speaking Deutsch.' We just looked at each other, and sometimes we nodded, or smiled. At one point, I threw a cigarette to the guy. He said 'Danke'. From the bit of Yiddish I knew, I figured he was thanking me. He lit up.
"A while later, it seemed like he made a sudden move. I squeezed the trigger of my rifle...he let out this long groan..."
"My God," Kal said. "And then what?"
"I crawled over next to him. He was dead...his right hand was resting on the gun. In his other hand he had pictures of an older couple, his parents I guess, and a young girl, real cute, maybe his wife or sweetheart. . .About an hour later, the battle quieted down. I heard some of my guys walking by, talking English. I yelled to them. They carried me to the medics."
"And the German soldier?"
"They said they would get him later. . . Was he reaching for his rifle? Was he gonna show me the photos of his family? I don't know...A young guy, just like me. Maybe if we'd been able to speak the same language...I never knew what the hell he was reaching for..."
Murrey looked down at the Purple Heart, and shrugged. He took a slow sip of his whiskey, and stared off into the distance. They both sat there in silence for a long time.