by Marlene Olin
The first in his family to attend college, Mason Markowitz considered himself a success. A professor of English. Handsome. Fiftyish. Married to an accomplished woman. His kids were nearly grown and his tenure secure.
But no matter how much he was blessed, a cloud always hovered. He woke every morning and expected the worst. Black skies. Lightning bolts. Reams of pelting rain. He'd open the curtains certain of dread, each sunrise a cosmic test. Like Job, he waited for the earth to cleave.
And then it did.
First his mother lost her mind. No, it wasn't dementia. Dementia was something you could grip, something you could wrestle. Instead they called it depression, a kind of PTSD, a misty ghost that haunts the elderly. They've seen it before, they told him. In other Holocaust survivors. The self-imposed starvation. The hoarding. The past was choking Ruth one memory at a time.
The problems, of course, were nothing new. Their mother was always different. When the black moods came, she simply hid. She'd spend days ensconced in her bedroom, too terrified to run to the grocery store or even to drive them to school. At first, there were good times. The episodes few and far between. But as years progressed. the craziness bloomed.
If life were a stage, his father Yitz was the star. He juggled Ruth's meds, faked her handwriting, took care of both ends of the conversation while she sat mutely by. A regular vaudevillian act, his parents. The puppeteer and his prop.
Who could have foreseen his death? Yitz prided himself on self-discipline, flaunting his fitness, badgering everyone with details of his diet and exercise. He had no idea how his cellphone worked but could tell you his HDL and glucose levels. But inevitably, inexorably, the curtain falls.
Was it only a month ago? An October day just like every other. Mason's father busied himself with his routine. Lunching at the deli. Nudging the help. Playing backgammon and cards. Then he went to sleep and never woke up. At the age of ninety, a blessing, really.
Still Mason couldn't wrap his head around it. Somehow he felt robbed. An orderly progression should have taken place. A diagnosis. An intervention. A plan.
Instead an incompleteness loomed. Sure a quick death was kind to his father. But where did that leave him? Instead Mason muddled through his father's funeral. Only after a week of mourning did reality hit. A mountain full of details had to be tackled, one onerous task at a time.
Yitz's lawyer was nearly as old as Yitz. Bifocals as thick as a yahrzeit glass. Hands that shook like a compass. Mason doubted Irv Sussman owned a computer. The office was stacked floor to ceiling with files. A massive desk and two chairs. Sussman took one while Mason took the other.
"I don't need to tell you," said Sussman. " You. You know. Your father was a stubborn man. He should have moved your mother to a nursing home years ago. The transition went smoothly, no?"
Chalk that up to another disaster. Palmetto Manor was a Miami fixture, the place where Jewish professionals parked their parents. The social workers had pushed it. The doctors insisted. His mother would live in a private apartment with the all the backup she'd need.
But the move proved catastrophic. Whatever cord tethered to his mother to reality was forever cut. Instead Ruth's mind stayed perpetually airborne, time traveling back to another time and another place.
"It's like she's back in the camps," said Mason. "Scavenging. I mean she always hoarded. Those little packages of sweetener. Salt and pepper shakers. Entire baskets of rolls. At restaurants, everything went in her purse."
Sussman nodded. This was a story he heard before.
"And now?" said Sussman.
"Now she steals whatever she can find. Usually it's a bag of cough drops. Or a picture frame. But last week it was a watch. She tries to pilfer jewelry all the time."
Sussman was old enough to know the ins and outs of senior facilities. "And still they keep her?"
Mason threw up his hands. "We're moving her next week to a Memory Care Unit. Someplace with locks on the doors and eyes on the halls."
Then suddenly the issue Mason was skirting stood front and center.
"I need cash, Mr. Sussman. These places cost a fortune. I'm executor of my father's estate, right? I have Power of Attorney. There must be some funds."
The list was suddenly endless. Money for his mother. Cash for his kids' college. Not to mention his sister. Since his father's death, she had called at least a dozen times
and at least a dozen times Mason refused to answer.
The air-conditioning hissed and heaved. Meanwhile Sussman thumbed through a thick stack of papers, licking the tip of his index finger as he worked. "Your father, as you know, didn't believe in savings accounts or the stock market."
Mason gripped the armrests. "Their house has nothing of value. Green stamp furniture. Green stamp lamps. "
He remembered the booklets. Sitting at the kitchen table. Filling in the squares.
His sister was three years younger and never stayed between the lines.
"Aha!" Finally, Sussman found what he was looking for. He thrust out a paper.
"There's a safe deposit box. Here. Your father left a list."
Mason glanced at his father's handwriting and felt his heart lurch. The mangled English. The familiar loops and swirls. He ran his finger over the paper, feeling
the texture, the grooves, the microscopic remnants of his father's touch.
"Kruggerands. Bullion bars. A five-carat ring." Mason looked up. "This doesn't make sense. My father was a baker." Then he shook the paper in his hand. "How could he possibly own Fort Knox?"
Sussman sat up a little straighter. Then he ran his long and spindly fingers through what remained of his hair. "Don't judge a book by its cover, Mr. English Professor. Your father wasn't just a baker. He owned bakeries. He was a savvy investor in his own peculiar way."
"So we're fluid, right? I open the safe deposit box, sell my father's stuff..."
Sussman held up a finger. "There's one minor problem."
Mason felt his stomach cramp.
"Your mother wasn't the only hoarder in the family. Your father. He trusted no one."
"So what are you saying?" said Mason.
"I'm saying there's good news and bad. The good news is you're rich. At least rich enough to join a country club, to go to Europe, to take a cruise." Then Sussman glanced at his watch and sighed. "The bad news is your father liked secrets. I have no idea where this safety deposit box is. There's no key. No instructions. No nothing. Your father's sent you on a treasure hunt, Mason." Then he sat back in his chair, threw his feet on the desk, and chuckled. "The best of luck with that."
Hours later, Mason found himself in his office. He loved his office. The floor-to-ceiling shelves. The tasteful posters. He felt cocooned in his office, as if he were swaddled by books. He walked to the outside vestibule where the latest work-study student was handling the phones.
"I'm not here," said Mason. "No calls. No visits. I may look here but I'm not."
Then he trudged back, closed the door, and took out his cellphone. Reluctantly, he
dialed his sister's number.
"Leigh, it's Mason. Give me a call, okay?"
His baby sister was yet another burden. As hard as Yitz was on Mason, he was the opposite with Leigh. Once when he was in college, Mason wanted to spend spring break in the Bahamas. All his friends at the university planned to go. But Yitz would hear nothing of it. In spite of him, Mason found a way. He and his best friend chartered a jet, sold two hundred tickets, and with the profits finagled free rides.
But his daughter was a different story. For Leigh, Yitz emptied his pockets. Nothing was spared. A new nose. A designer wardrobe. Not one but three extravagant weddings. And in the end, what was accomplished? A lifetime spent pinballing from husband to husband and hobby to hobby. Buddhism. Tai chi. Decoupage. Who could keep track?
The last conversation he had with his sister played like a loop in his head.
"Dad died last night," he told her. "Mom woke up and found him. She can't believe
he's gone. She thinks he's just taking a nap."
But he emptied his heart only to be met with silence. Across the lines, miles away in New York City, Mason listened to his sister's soundtrack. As always, she was restless, opening and closing drawers, the TV blaring in the background, the clink of ice in a glass. Somewhere deep inside Mason felt an elevator falling and rising, the contents of his stomach working its way up. The loss of ninety-year-old man was not a tragedy. Yet nothing made Mason lonelier than talking to his sister.
Then finally, after endless seconds, she spoke.
"I always thought he'd be here," said Leigh. "To take care of Mom. To take care of everything. You know?"
Of course, Leigh asked for a plane ticket. And his father would have bought one, no doubt. But when Mason said no, she was shocked. Dumbfounded. Then she let loose
a string of swearwords that would have made their parents blush.
To Mason's shock, she never showed up. To her own father's funeral!
The following days he went through the rituals alone. And as he tiptoed in socks and covered the mirrors and sat on wooden crates, the questions beat like a pulse. Did she even say Kaddish, he wondered? Was a single candle lit?
When his cellphone rang, he jumped. Leigh's number was on the screen. Mason skipped the niceties and headed straight to the point.
"I just met with Sussman," said Mason. "Did Dad ever mention a safety deposit box? There must be a key or a receipt."
"A safety deposit box? she asked. "I had no idea."
The more Mason thought about his dilemma, the more it overwhelmed him. When they left the German DP camp in 1948, his parents first moved to Brooklyn. They didn't move to Miami until years later.
"Do you have any idea how many banks there are in New York and South Florida?" said Mason. "It's like I'm searching for the Holy Grail. And unless I find some fucking clue, I'll have to contact every single one."
The idea came to him while writing thank-you notes. Mason was determined to acknowledge every thoughtful gesture people had made on his father's behalf. He was old-fashioned that way. Once again he locked himself in his office. Then he took out his favorite fountain pen, his best card stock paper, and languidly began writing. Every food platter, every five dollar donation to charity, would be accounted for.
Dear Mr. Klein,
I wish to extend my sincerest gratitude for thinking of me and my family during our time of need. My father spoke about you often. Nobody plays pinochle, like Yutch, he'd say. The tray of rugelach was truly enjoyed. Thank you very, very much...
Dear Mrs. Greenbaum,
Thank you for your generous contribution to The Bichon Rescue Organization
on behalf of my father. Though I'm allergic to dogs, we all grew up with a sincere appreciation of the satisfaction they brought others...
Dear Trudi and Myles,
My wife and I so appreciate the tree you planted in memory of Dad. Eretz Israel,
as you know, held a special place in his heart...
Once again the memories taunted him. His father would send thousands of dollars to The Holy Land. Hadassah hospital. The Israeli Defense League. And yet they sat year after year on the same plastic covered couches, the rugs ancient, the TV antique.
And while his father hid bars of bullion, his mother wasted nothing. She'd sit and watch them eat, her mouth chewing with their mouths. Never eating. Always watching. Then hiding in the kitchen later, she'd spoon the last drop in a casserole. Then she'd wash and rewash the plastic wrap normal people threw away.
Mason was mortified, of course. Not as a child. A child knows nothing. But as a teenager, his eyes were opened. Everything about his parents embarrassed him. He was ashamed of their accent, their clothes, the hand gestures that looped and lassoed the air.
But when it came to charity, his parents were big shots. Mason could see that now. There was money. There was always money. It just wasn't directed toward him.
He had combed his parents' house from the ceiling rafters to the spaces behind the kitchen cabinets. Still there was no sign of a safety deposit box. No key. No receipt. Then one day inspiration took hold. He was rummaging through the package the funeral home had sent him. And among the final bills and invoices, was the guest book that stood at the synagogue entrance. There were over a hundred names, many of them not remotely familiar.
Again, Mason sequestered himself in his office. Then he created a file on his computer and methodically typed each name in. The plan was to search for any
pertinent information. An address. A phone number. He'd personally thank each
person for attending the service. And then he'd zero in.
"I'm looking for a Mr. Schwartz. Can I speak to Moishe Schwartz?"
"You need a divorce?"
"Is Max Fein at this number?
"Fein? He used to be fine. But he dropped dead last Tuesday."
Those whom he was able to reach were invariably deaf. Then one afternoon, after countless tries, with the last of the sun's rays slicing through his blinds, he met success.
"Herb Kravitz? Is a Herb Kravitz available?"
"My name is Mason Markowitz. I believe you knew my father?"
"Your father I wasn't crazy about. Your mother I liked."
The man lived in Boyton Beach, over an hour's drive away. Mason met him on his
turf, a small coffee shop near a strip mall. He looked vaguely familiar, his face like a photograph in a family album.
A nimbus of frizzy white hair. The face splotched brown and white. The man wore a Lacoste shirt and plaid Bermuda shorts. Considering his age, Mason was impressed. Not only was the man upright. He was downright spritely. Herb glanced at his watch.
"You stole me from my golf game, Mason. What's on your mind?"
Mason unfolded a crib sheet from his pocket. Then he started with his questions.
"First," said Mason, "I wanted to thank you for coming to the funeral. Were you close friends with my parents?"
The man stood up, waved over the waitress, and yelled at the top of his lungs.
"Doris, you need to top my Sanka! And bring those yellow sweeteners, will you!"
Herb was either hard of hearing or completely ignoring him. It was hard to tell.
"Close? I've known you your whole life. I was at your bris. Your bar mitzvah. Your wedding. How many times has your sister been married? I was at those, too. Each
and every one a gift."
He slurped his steaming coffee in gulps. Then he stood up, waved his arms wildly,
and beckoned the waitress once more. "I need a bagel with a schmear, Doris. Scooped and toasted. Don't forget."
Sitting down, the old man sighed. "I have for you a story. You want a story?"
Mason leaned forward.
"Your grandfather and my father were in the fur trade in Vilna. We were wealthy. So wealthy that when the Nazis took over they tipped us off. They were emptying our neighborhood one block at a time. Then one night, a knock at the door."
Like a thunderclap, the old man rapped his knuckles on the table.
"Our apartment was next. We were told to hurry, to shove everything of value into a single suitcase. To stuff our pockets with food. Though it was summer, my mother layered on my clothes. My winter hat. My leather boots. Then they sent my older brother to your grandparent's house with a note. We were to meet at the sewers.
I still can picture that night. There was a manhole across from the Catholic church. We stood in the shadows and waited. The moon was full, the steeple of the church reaching to the sky. Finally, a man appeared. If we handed over the suitcase, he'd show us the way.
Of the twelve people who lived in the sewer, your mother and I were the only children. She was ten, I was five. The water was foul, the smell worse. But being young
has its advantages. I saw everything as an adventure. I could stand upright. The rats became pets. If there was a crumb of bread, I'd give some to my furry friends."
Mason glanced at the people around him. A room full of strangers were eating, laughing, joking.
"But Ruth," said Herb. "She wasn't happy. She couldn't sleep. She wouldn't eat. Her mother died in that sewer. And after eight months, when they warned us it wasn't safe, no one knew what to do.
The plan was to find another hiding place. There was talk of a basement in an employee's home. But the moment they carried me outside, I panicked. Daylight hurt and people frightened me. The honk of cars. The rush of feet. I wouldn't stop screaming. I was the last person anyone wanted to hide with.
So in the dead of night, they snuck us out. While the rest of our group made their way to this basement, Ruth and I were sent in the opposite direction. My mother's pearl earrings were her prize possession. She unclipped them from her ears and handed them off. Then we were driven to a farm fifty kilometers away."
This was all news to Mason. His mother never talked about the war. And Mason was never brave enough to ask.
"The employee, it turns out, was not to trusted. Later, we learned our families were shot in the pits of Ponary. Meanwhile Ruth and I hid in that farm for the next three years."
When Mason thought of farms, cows and gingham came to mind. Apple pies
and homemade butter. Christmas in July.
"There was a old root cellar near the barn." Then Herb clenched his jaw and rapped
on the table hard enough to shake the water glasses. "Not much bigger than this table.
It was cold. Dark. Dank. That's where we hid. Ruth and I. For three long years."
Frieda Freyling lived with her daughter in Palm Beach. Both of them had attended the funeral. Frieda, Mason had been told, suffered a stroke a year earlier. Now she spoke only in Yiddish, the daughter her translator and guide.
He drove to their home, a lovely Mediterranean house draped with pink bougainvillea. A housekeeper answered the door and ushered him in. The living room was as vast as a hotel lobby. Except for the art on the wall, everything was white.
A few minutes later, an impeccably dressed older woman wheeled an even older woman into the room. Shayna Wasserman introduced herself. Then her mother bent forward and reached for Mason's hand.
He stooped to make himself small. And as he was stooping, his head down, his hands on his knees, Frieda ran her fingers over his face. Over and over like she was reading Brail. Then she started crying.
The daughter pointed to the couch. "Sit. I feel like we're family. There's much to discuss. No?"
Mason could see that she was used to giving instructions. A nod to the housekeeper. A finger point to Frieda's aide.
"My mother knew your father in Warsaw. Did you know that? When your father died, part of her died, too. She lost her last contact. With her family. Her childhood. Poland."
The stories were buried but always threatened to surface. Somehow Mason's father
and grandfather survived the ghetto. The trains. The work camp. But Yitz only talked in generalities. Of the details Mason was spared.
The mother turned and rambled in Yiddish for five minutes. Then Shayna turned back to Mason. "They met in the ghetto. The children ran wild, looking for food, for diversion, for a sliver of normalcy. They played together. Ate together. Prayed together."
Then again the huddling. Mason looked outside. A huge pool and beyond the pool
the Intracoastal Waterway. The sea was lapping, the sun shining white on the crests.
"Your father turned thirteen in the ghetto. Instead of a bar mitzvah, they threw a small party."
This was another thunderclap. Mason had no idea his father was not bar mitzvahed. He waited for this news to percolate, his brain swimming with this extraordinary information. He still remembered the arguments they had when he turned twelve. Mason was steeped in the Beat Poets. He dressed in black and grew his hair over his collar. And there was nothing he wanted more than to quit Hebrew school.
They argued and argued but his father insisted. And afterwards, after reading from the Torah in front of two hundred family and friends, there was a lunch to top all lunches. His profile an ice sculpture. His face imprinted in chopped liver. Once again, Mason was mortified.
Meanwhile, Frieda was playing with the hem of her blouse. She showed Mason the stitches.
"The mothers sewed all their jewelry into the hems of their clothes," said Shayna. "Rings. Necklaces. Bracelets. And one by one each piece of jewelry was bartered. That day, the day of your father's birthday, your grandmother traded her wedding ring for an orange. They cut the orange into slices and gave a slice to each of the children. My mother made Yitz a birthday card. Someone presented a pair of socks. But the biggest treat of all was that orange."
Then once again, Frieda began weeping.
"Some people thought your grandmother was crazy. That she should have saved that ring for a favor or a bribe. But that orange was the most delicious thing my mother ever tasted."
"A ring for an orange?" said Mason.
"Looking back, it was the last birthday Yitz would ever spend with his mother.
I suppose she knew that. That orange would be her last gift."
Six months later it was June, and still Mason was driven. He spent hours on the phone talking to his parents' acquaintances, emailing banks, researching the ins and outs of his father's business. Of course, his family tried to convince Mason to give up the hunt.
They were at the dinner table. Mason, his wife Miriam, his three teenagers. As usual, he interrogated his children. He asked the kids about their classes and their schoolwork and each diligently complied. It was a remnant from his childhood, he supposed. The nightly inquisitions. The admonitions to work hard and try harder.
"You see these hands?" his father used to say. Then for the thousandth time he'd hold them out for inspection. Though his father was not a big man, his hands were muscled and callused from kneading bread, from stoking ovens, from lifting heavy sacks.
"At Auschwitz there were two lines. First they put me with the women and children.
But my father drew me by his side. Then they waved me to the left. But my father would have nothing of it."
"Look at these hands!" he told them. "Are these a child's hands? They're the hands
of a worker! A laborer! These are not a boy's hands!"
Mason glanced at his fingers. They were soft, white, manicured. He sipped his tea and nibbled on a cookie, the whole time watching his hands.
"Mason," said Miriam. "Are you listening? Have you heard a word I've said?"
Still he stared at his hands.
When all the dishes were cleared and the children sent to their rooms, Miriam once again spoke.
"Enough is enough, Mason. We'll make do without your parents' money. We won't be rich but you have a job. I have a job. We'll never be poor."
Mason looked up. "They're dying. Did you know they're all dying? My father had a little black book. Remember his book? The one he scribbled addresses and phone numbers in."
"Mason, that book's what? Forty, fifty years old?"
"I've been contacting every person. His friends, his neighbors, his business colleagues. If they're not dying, they're dead. It's a race against the clock."
Miriam worked in an accounting firm. She knew when things didn't add up.
"Mason. Your head is not attached to your neck anymore. I need you. Your children need you. It's time to stop."
He opened and closed his fingers. Then he pictured himself with his grandfather. Would he be sent left or sent right?
"Mason," said his wife even louder. She rose up from her seat and stacked the remaining dishes in her arms. "When this hunt, this quest started, it was all about
a safety deposit box. It's more than that, isn't it? Much much more."
And that's when he realized that the search wasn't over. That what he was looking for was still out there, begging to be found.
Of one thing Mason was sure. A piece of the puzzle was still missing. And after sifting through his father's papers, after badgering the accountant, after hounding Sussman daily, Mason was fairly sure that the piece was in Milwaukee.
It took him weeks to track the man down. But finally he found his father's old business partner. Yitz was nothing but a manual laborer until he hooked up with Morty. Sure Yitz could bake. And he used only the freshest ingredients. But it was Morty Nussbaum who saw the big picture. Who recognized the cupcake mania before it started. Who insisted on franchising the stores. He was the one who took AnnaLee Delicious, a mom-and-pop outfit, and made it a household name.
Now Morty lived in a nursing home in Wisconsin. A widower, he had packed up and moved from New York a decade earlier to be near his daughter.
"By all means come," said the daughter. The sigh was audible across the lines. "Morty's body's shut down but his mind still works. He'll appreciate the visit."
Following the directions on his cellphone, Mason looped the streets until he came
to a red-bricked building. A row of begonias neatly lined the entrance. Inside the lobby, a woman in a smart suit played a baby grand piano. The floor marble. The furniture tasteful.
Things, thought Mason, could be worse.
Since it was noon, they ushered him to the dining room. Sitting to the side, hidden behind a nest of potted plants, was Morty and his daughter Sue. She looked in her sixties, her gray hair swept elegantly up. The old man was tucked into a wheelchair, a sweater thrown over his shoulders, his hands limp by his sides.
Before they would talk, a lengthy lunch was served. Finally, Mason took out his crib sheet. Then he glanced at the questions and crumpled the paper in his hand. "Dad left a safety deposit box," said Mason. "Did he ever mention it? Because I have no idea where
The old man nodded. "It'll turn up. I've lived a long time. And eventually, if you live long enough, most secrets, I've learned, come to light."
Somewhere a clock was ticking. Mason felt his body tense, saw his hand clench, heard his voice boom. And all at once, the months of searching built to a crescendo. "Maybe you don't understand. Dad never bought life insurance. He never anticipated. He never planned. Everything of value is in that box."
Then the man pursed his lips and scowled. "Everything of value?"
Suddenly Mason felt a drop in the air pressure. When he looked outside, he saw a hurricane. Flying furniture. A witch atop a broom.
"My father was so...complicated, " said Mason. "I can't sort him out." Which Yitz was he supposed to mourn? His father was kind yet cruel. Generous but withholding. A dictator and a clown. Mason loved and hated him both.
Then all at once the old man started twitching. A spasm started in his fingers and worked its way up.
"Do you know there was a sister? A baby girl. Before they were herded into the ghetto, your grandparents gave her away. She was beautiful, said Yitz. Blond and blue-eyed. Perfect. They put her in her fanciest dress, combed her beautiful hair, peeled her little fingers from their arms. Then they passed her over."
Mason felt all the color drain from his face. "I had no idea. What was her name? Did she have a name?"
"They called her Anna," said Morty. "Just like the bakery. In her hand was a spoon.
A silver spoon with the date of her birthday engraved."
Morty started coughing. Was he choking? Mason was sure he was choking.
Still the old man continued.
"So you see, Mason. Your father had little interest in money. To him, a wallet filled with cash was just a sandbag in a storm. But that spoon? That spoon haunted him forever. That spoon visited him in his dreams."
On the plane ride back, Mason fell into a deep sleep. And like a painting on the wall, the still life of his parents' past flashed before him. A pair of pearl earrings. An orange. A spoon. How could anything else be of any importance? How could anything else compare?
When he came home, his wife and children were waiting. And in a pile of mail, along with the bills and magazines, was an invoice from a bank. The letter had been forwarded from his parents' address. It had probably been in mail purgatory for weeks.
Dear Mr. Markowitz,
"This is to inform you that the yearly rent for your safety deposit box is overdue.
Please contact us and remit as soon as possible. Your business is our business!
The folks at Poughkeepsie National."
Months passed. And it would occur to Mason, when his mother was settled, when his sister was mollified and his parents' house sold, that the quest was far from over. Somewhere, perhaps in Poland, lived an aunt. And who knows? Perhaps a boatload
of cousins as well. She may or may not be alive. She may or may not know who she
is or whom she belonged to.
Still Mason swore to find her. At the least, he'd find the spoon.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories and essays have been published in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Catapult, PANK, and The Baltimore Review. She is the recipient
of both the 2015 Rick Demarinis Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize.
Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories.