Stuck in the Middle

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Brian Behr Valentine


Occasionally in a movie someone lurches awake, sitting up wide-eyed with shock. I have claimed this in my own personal anecdotes but it never really happened, not really, until last night. Remembering an old box of books I’d just purchased yesterday, or more importantly, a realization about one particular book had awakened me. One used book and what I had found inside of it.

I’m a bibliophile… a book lover, and a yard sale addict. I’ll run a grandma off the road and drive through a flowerbed for a hand-written sign tacked to a light pole. I cruise the better neighborhoods Saturday mornings with a thermos of coffee and a box of donut holes, red-eyed and looking for a fresh intellectual kill.

I make more stripping for two nights than I can in a week using my diploma. Something in me rebels against that so I use a portion of the money to buy books. I have a basement, a garage and two storage units full. I hit several good sales yesterday morning. I had purchased a lot of books but none by the box when I made my last stop.

Old dusty boxes are the best. Boxes laid out on the dew-covered grass in distain for their weight and filth, $1/ea hastily scrawled on a flap. “Oh, those were Dad’s books, from the attic, sorry about the dust! I should clean them.” They say this hoping I’ll offer a way out. A five usually seems like a good exchange for a water-damaged box full of dusty old books, mouse crap and dead wasps.

Right. I often wonder how quickly they would grab the Lincoln if they knew it had been tucked in my thong just a few hours earlier. That bill was still warm from my buns and greasy from some fat investment banker’s sweaty fingers. I marked the place on my iPhone GPS and drove home to sort through my find in the garage.

The real filth turned out to be written between the pages of one particular book, Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf. I’m only thirty-two but I was a serious youth. I studied this sort of thing as I prepared myself for a career in law enforcement. It is an odd thing to hold Mein Kampf in your hands in the era of Barack Obama’s presidency.

It was a ratty version, much read, which was unusual. People bought it to have not to read, consciously claiming they could not understand, unconsciously knowing they did. It went directly into the book-exchange container. The ratty leather bookmark with a hand printed safe combination went in the trash and both were forgotten, until five this morning when I lurched up in bed. I was on my knees on the garage digging through the trash when Missy, who had awakened at my hasty departure, walked in.

“Wow, Jewel, are you like… puking or waiting for me to get the strap-on?”

Missy is a stripper friend. I’m not officially a dyke and neither is she, supposedly. But she did not want to go home to her asshole boyfriend last night after we climbed down off the poles. She slipped into my car saying she just wanted to sleep on my couch. I suspect there was an ulterior motive, though she swears it was just a one-thing-leading-to-another moment. She had two bottles of very fine Chardonnay on ice in her little lunch-bag cooler. One thing did lead to another… tricky bitch.

I stood and turned, holding the bookmark by the edges under the dim garage light.

“What’s that?”

“A bookmark… of sorts,” I replied in a shaky voice.

She took the tattered bookmark from me. “It’s going to shit. Somebody wrote an IP address on it with a blue Sharpie. What’s the big deal?”

“I think those are identification numbers tattooed from the arm of a concentration camp detainee during World War Two.”

“That sucks. They did that?”

“Yeah.”

She looked at the bookmark again. “Somebody’s numbers copied off their arm…”

“I don’t think that’s a copy!”

Missy screamed, hands going to her face, she jog-stepped back from where it fluttered to the floor. “Oh my God!”

I stepped over the strip and pushed her through the door. She threw up in the sink then vigorously tried to wash the feeling of holding the marker from her hands before running upstairs to cry in bed. There are things even a stripper can’t bear thinking of.

I had no choice. I can’t… not think. I went to the couch rubbing my fingers together. I too could still feel the ratty edges myself, a dry, powdery strip of decaying leather marked with faded purple numbers. Someone’s skin though. I had found someone’s personal horror story between the pages of a used book, a book representing millions of personal horror stories.

I went back out to the garage at daylight. The streaky tan bookmark with ragged edges lay flat and frayed on the cold concrete in the stark angular light. I retrieved the copy of Mein Kampf from the exchange bin first. The book was marred by the bookmark the way the world had been marred by the author.

The strip of human leather had been too thick and the pages were compressed to form an indention. The binding was loose, the boards warped. The pages directly in contact with the tattooed flesh were red stained from the iron in the blood remnants that had leached into the paper over the years. How ironic. How horribly poetic. How poetically horrible. I wanted to replace the marker and burn them together.

“Wow,” I remarked to the author. “Still working after all these years. Trying to get me to fall for one of your own stunts. A nice toasty book burning. Bask in the warmth of vindictive judgment.” I looked the rest of the book over. There was no personal mark. But it had been one of ‘Dad’s books.’ It was Sunday morning and I had a lot of research to do and a visit to make on Monday. I’m a private detective when I’m not stripping, and sometimes when I am, since most of my clients are fellow sex workers. It would not do to hand this over to the police just yet. I needed to get to the truth for them first. I wanted to see the lady’s reaction when I held the book out. Would she be baffled or chagrined?

Her name was Susan. “Dad’s book.” I said bluntly, when she opened the door.

After a quick surprised glance she stared at me and not the book. She knew what I had found.

“Have you read it?” I asked.

“Tried. I kept getting stuck in the middle.”

“I meant this particular copy.” Still she stared. “Look lady, a crime has been committed and I don’t just mean what’s written on the pages.” I flipped it open to the bookmark and her eyes finally left mine. “This is human skin!” I said bluntly. “This is…”

With a quick look around the neighborhood she motioned me in. “Okay. I’m sorry…” She reached for the book and I tucked it under my arm. “Look, that’s family business. I’ll pay whatever you want, miss…”

“Jewel Harvard, and I want the story behind this… this atrocity pressed between the pages of an old book like it was a keepsake flower. This is more than a photograph, a postcard, or a note from grandma to the future. This isn’t a leaf from a field trip or a receipt for grandpa’s mail-order bride! This is part of a human being! Someone bled for this!”

“I know… My father…” She shook her head.

“Tell me the story… and I warn you, I will go to the police if you lie.”

“But… but its ancient history! Why bring it up now? Why not let it be?” Her eyes were glazed with tears but she trembled with rage as well. She was a tall, big-boned gal who looked like she had been athletic once despite the weight.

I held my ground. “The story!”

She glared. “I never dreamed Momma kept that after he died. She would never talk to me about it. You can try if you want. At the nursing home tomorrow morning. Just, for God’s sake, don’t go to the police!”

*

“He… he never wanted anyone to know,” the old lady mumbled from her partially-raised bed. “Auschwitz… He couldn’t stand the tattoo. One night… drunk… cut it off with a filet knife. Whole kitchen was bloody mess!”

“My God!” said Susan. “That scar… he said… he said it was from an auto accident!”

“No,” the crone croaked in a heavy German accent across toothless gums. “He… the blood… all over kitchen,” she said indicating the strip exposed in the open book. She turned away and squeezed dry eyes against tears that did not come.

“I’ll wait in the parking lot,” I said, sticking the book back in the white plastic grocery bag and turning it twice to wrap it.

“Satisfied?” Susan demanded, confronting me between our cars. I kept a good two-handed grip on the book. In the sunlight you could read Mein Kampf through the thin plastic. “I’ll give you five hundred dollars! I’ve got it here.” She began to dig in her purse.

“It’s a lie.” She froze. “The two of you cooked this up just for me. That number was issued to a woman named Eva. It’s not your father’s skin.”

She looked ready to jump on me.

“He’s dead. Just tell me what happened,” I demanded.

“And you’ll give me the book?”

“I will go to the police if I think you’re lying, though.”

“Okay.” She looked around. “Here?”

“Give me the short version and let’s end this.”

Her eyes remained dangerous and flat. “He was a clerk and a guard at Auschwitz. He was just a stupid boy though, tall for his age. He lied and joined the Nazi army. He was young and foolish… he believed… he believed.” She glanced with disgust. “A woman came to the house. Came here to America! She said he had been the one to… mark her. Said he had… also taken her… as his personal assistant.”

“Sex slave, you mean.”

“He was a hot-headed young fool!” Susan barked.

“Get on with it.”

“He immigrated to the U.S. and went on to live a respectable life.”

“He believed he was leading a respectable life as a Nazi too!”

She was red with anger now. “Ancient history! Then this woman comes along, two decades later!”

“He must have made a hell of an impression!” I remarked acidly.

Susan raised her hand to slap me and I gave her the eye. I probably could not have, but I maintained an attitude that said I would kick her ass in a heartbeat. Stripper nerves.

“The bitch was going to turn him in. Ruin all of our lives. She brought all this proof, pictures, records… they struggled. He hit her with a softball bat and cut that strip away so that the body could not be identified.”

“But he couldn’t stand it! The difference between who he was, a loving husband and father, peer in the community, and who he had been…during the war. He kept the strip and used it as a bookmark in that damned book. A reminder… he hadn’t read it since he brought it from Germany. But after she came… he read again and again trying to understand! How could he be both of those people? Mother found the book after he died and hid it in the attic. I thought she trashed it.”

Susan snatched the book and stalked away without looking back. It was a lie. If her father had been using a version he immigrated with, it would have been written in German. I went to the cops with the real copy and its ugly bookmark I had stowed in my trunk. It had been Susan who read and reread the English version, trying to understand how sweet wonderful daddy could also be a Nazi rapist.

She broke down under questioning and admitted to killing the woman who had come to their home when her parents were out. She had been seventeen and just home from softball practice. A big, hot-headed girl with a bat handy. Born long after the end of the war, Susan had been stuck in the middle of that book along with Eva for almost forty years now. Stuck with millions of bodies, hundreds of burned cities, a couple of A-bombs and a generation of other personal tragedies.
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Brian is a winemaker who lives in the country with his lovely wife of twenty-four years and their thirteen dogs. E-mail: behrvalentine[at]excite.com

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