“Pa! Get the hell out here.”
There came Herschel careening and panting in the kitchen door. He was a tall lumbering horsey boy with unshaven jaws and a raw braying voice. He was breathing on his knuckles, it was a cold autumn morning.
It was the morning of Hallowe’en, 1948. Rebecca was twelve years old and in seventh grade.
It was shortly past dawn. In the night there had been a frost and a light dusting of snow. Now the sky was gray and twilit and in the east beyond the Chautauqua mountains the sun was a faintly glowing hooded eye.
Rebecca was helping Ma prepare breakfast. Gus hadn’t yet emerged from his bedroom. Pa in coveralls stood at the sink pumping water, coughing and noisily spitting in that way of his that made Rebecca feel sickish. Pa looked up at Herschel sharply, asking, “What? What’s it?”
“You best come outside by y’self, Pa.”
Herschel spoke with uncharacteristic grimness. You looked to see if he’d wink, screw up his eyes, wriggle his mouth in that comical way of his, give some sign he was fooling, but he was serious, he did not even glance at Rebecca.
Jacob Schwart stared at his elder son, saw something in the boy’s face-fury, hurt, bafflement, and quivering animal excitement-he had not seen before. He cursed, and reached for the poker beside the cast-iron stove. Herschel laughed harshly saying, “It’s too late for any fuckin poker, Pa.”
Pa followed Herschel outside, limping. Rebecca would have followed but Pa turned as if by instinct to warn her, “Stay inside, girl.” By this time Gus had stumbled out of the bedroom, spiky-haired and disheveled; at nineteen he was nearly Herschel’s height, six feet two, but thirty pounds lighter, rail-thin and skittish.
Anna Schwart, at the stove, looking at no one, removed the heavy iron frying pan from the burner and set it to the side.
Herschel led the way, Pa followed close behind him swaying like a drunken man, staring. The night before Hallowe’en was known as Devil’s Night. In the Chautauqua Valley it seemed to be an old, in some way revered tradition. “Pranks” were committed by unknown parties who came in stealth, in the dark. “Mischief.” You were meant to take it as a joke.
The Milburn cemetery had long been a target for Devil’s Night pranks, before Jacob Schwart became caretaker. So they would tell him, they would insist.
“Think I don’t know who done this, Chrissake I do. I got a good idea, see!”
Herschel spoke in disgust, his voice trembling. Jacob Schwart was barely listening to his son. The night before, he’d dragged the iron gates to the front entrance shut and fastened them with a chain, of course he knew what Devil’s Night was, there’d been damage to the cemetery in past years, he’d tried to stay awake to protect the property but (he’d been exhausted, and he’d been drinking) he’d fallen asleep by midnight and in any case he had no weapon, no gun. Men and boys as young as twelve owned rifles, shotguns, but Jacob Schwart had not yet armed himself. He had a horror of firearms, he was not a hunter. A part of him had long cautioned against the irrevocable step. Arm yourself! One day it will be too late. A part of him wanted neither to kill nor to be killed but in the end his enemies were giving him no choice.
Vandals hadn’t been deterred by the shut gates, they’d only just climbed over the cemetery wall. You could see where they’d knocked part of the wall down, a hundred or so yards back from the road.
There was no keeping them out. Marauding young men and boys. Their faces would be known to him, maybe. Their names. They were Milburn residents. Some were likely to be neighbors on the Quarry Road. Those others who despised the Schwarts. Looked down upon the Schwarts. Herschel seemed to know who they were, or to suspect. Jacob Schwart stumbled behind his son, wiping at his eyes. A twitch of a smile, dazed, ghastly, played about his lips.
No keeping your enemies out, if you are unarmed. He would not make that mistake again.
Crockery and flowerpots had been broken amid the graves. Pumpkins had been smashed with a look of frenzied revelry, their spilled seeds and juicy flesh looking like spilled brains. Already, crows had been feasting on these spilled brains.
“Get away, fuckers! Sonsabitches.”
Herschel clapped his hands to scatter the crows. His father seemed scarcely to notice them.
Crows! What did he care for crows! Brute, innocent creatures.
A number of the younger birch trees had been cruelly bent to the ground, and were now broken-backed, and would not recover. Several of the oldest and most frail of the gravestones, dating back to 1791, had been kicked over, and were cracked. All four tires on the caretaker’s 1939 Ford pickup had been slashed so that the truck sagged on its wheel rims like a beaten, toothless creature. And on the truck’s sides were marks in tar, ugly marks with the authority of jeering shouts.
And on the caretaker’s sheds, and on the front door of the caretaker’s stone cottage, so that the ugly marks were fully visible from the gravel drive, and would be seen by all visitors to the cemetery.
Gus had run outside, and Rebecca followed, hugging herself in the cold. She was too confused to be frightened, at first. Yet how strange it was: her father was silent, while Herschel cursed Fuck! fuckers! Her father Jacob Schwart so strangely silent, only just blinking and staring at the glistening tar marks.
“Pa? What’s it mean?”
Pa ignored her. Rebecca put out her hand to touch the tar where it had been scrawled on the side of a shed, the tar was cold, hardened. She couldn’t remember what the marks were called, something ugly-sounding beginning with s, but she knew what they meant-Germany? Nazis? The Axis Powers, that had been defeated in the war?
But the war had been over for a long time now, hadn’t it?
Rebecca calculated: she’d been in fourth grade when the Milburn fire siren had gone off, and all classes at the grammar school were canceled for the day. Now she was in seventh grade. Three years: the Germans had surrendered to the Allies in May of 1945. This seemed to her a very long time ago, when she’d been a little girl.
She wasn’t a little girl now. Her heart pounded in anger and indignation.
Herschel and Gus were talking excitedly. Still, Pa stood staring and squinting. It was not like Jacob Schwart to be so quiet, his children were aware of him, uneasy. He had hurried outside without a jacket or his cloth cap. He seemed confused, older than Rebecca had ever seen him. Like one of those homeless men, derelicts they were called, who gathered at the bus station in Milburn, and in good weather hung about the canal bridge. In the stark morning light Pa’s face looked battered, misshapen. His eyes were ringed in fatigue and his nose was swollen with broken capillaries like tiny spiderwebs. His mouth worked helplessly as if he couldn’t chew what had been thrust into it, couldn’t swallow or spit it out. Herschel was saying again how he had a damn good idea who the fuckers were who’d done this and Gus, aroused and indignant, was agreeing.
Rebecca wiped at her eyes, that were watering in the cold. The eastern sky was lightening now, there were breaks and fissures in the clouds overhead. She was seeing the ugly marks-“swastikas,” she remembered they were called-through her father’s eyes. How could you remove them, black tar that had hardened worse than any paint? How could you clean them off, scrub them off, tar? And how upset Ma would be! Oh, if they could hide the marks from Ma, somehow…
But Rebecca’s mother would know. Of course, she already knew. Anna Schwart’s instinct was to fear, to suspect the worst; by now she would be cowering behind the window, peering out. Not just the swastikas but the birch trees, that tore at your heart to see. And the broken flowerpots, and smashed pumpkins, cracked gravestones that could not be replaced.
“Why do they hate us?”
Rebecca spoke aloud, but too softly for her brothers or father to hear.
Yet her father heard her, it seemed. He turned toward her, and came limping toward her. “You! God damn what’d I tell you, girl! Get inside with your God damn ma.”
Jacob Schwart had become furious suddenly. He lunged at her, even with his bad knee he moved swiftly. Grabbing Rebecca by her upper arm and dragging her back to the house. Cursing her, hurting her so that Rebecca cried out in protest, and both her brothers protested, “Pa, hey-” though keeping their distance and not daring to touch him. “In-side, I said. And if you tell your God damn ma about this I will break your ass.”
His fingers would leave bruises in Rebecca’s flesh, she would contemplate for days. Like swastika marks they were, these ugly purplish-orange bruises.
And the fury with which he’d uttered ma. That short blunt syllable in Jacob Schwart’s mouth sounding like a curse.
He is the one who hates us.
That day. Hallowe’en, 1948. Her mother had wanted her to stay home from school but no, she’d insisted upon going to school as usual.
She was twelve, in seventh grade. She knew, at the school, that some of her classmates would know about the desecration to the cemetery, they would know about the swastikas. She didn’t want to think that some of her classmates, in the company of their older brothers, might have been involved in the vandalism.
Names came to mind: Diggles, LaMont, Meunzer, Kreznick. Loud jeering boys at the high school, or dropouts like Rebecca’s own brothers.
In town, among children at Rebecca’s school, there was always excitement about Hallowe’en. Wearing masks and costumes (purchased at Woolworth’s Five-and-Dime, where there was a front-window display of witches, devils, skeletons amid grinning plastic jack-o‘-lanterns), going door to door in the darkness calling out Trick or treat! There was something thrilling about it, Rebecca thought. Hiding behind a mask, wearing a costume. Beginning in first grade she’d begged to be allowed to go out on Hallowe’en night, but Jacob Schwart would not allow it, of course. Not his sons, and certainly not his daughter. Hallowe’en was a pagan custom, Pa said, demeaning and dangerous. Next thing to begging! And what if, Pa said with a sly smile, some individual fed up with kids coming to his door and annoying him decided to put rat poison in the candy treats?
Rebecca had laughed. “Oh, Pa! Why’d anybody do such a mean thing?” and Pa said, cocking his head at her as if he meant to impart a bit of wisdom to a naive little girl, “Because there is meanness in the world. And we are in the world.”
There had been Devil’s Night mischief in Milburn, Rebecca saw as she walked to school. Toilet paper tossed up into tree limbs, pumpkins smashed on the front steps of houses, battered mailboxes, soaped and waxed windows. (Soaped windows were easy to clean off but waxed windows required finicky labor with razor blades. Kids at school spoke of waxing the windows of neighbors they didn’t like, or anybody who didn’t give them very good treats. Sometimes, out of sheer meanness, they waxed store windows on Main Street because the big plate glass windows were such targets.) It made Rebecca nervous to see the Devil’s Night mischief in the unsparing light of morning. At the junior high school, kids stood about pointing and laughing: many ground-floor windows had been waxed, tomatoes and eggs had been thrown against the concrete walls, yet more pumpkins smashed on the steps. Like broken bodies they seemed, destroyed in a gleeful rage. You were made to realize, Rebecca thought, how mischief could be committed all the time, each night, if there was nobody to stop it.
“Look! Lookit here!”-someone was pointing at more damage to the school, a jagged crack in the plate glass window of one of the front doors, that had been crudely mended with masking tape by the school janitor.
Yet there were no tar marks in town, anywhere Rebecca had seen. No “swastikas.”
Why, Rebecca wondered. Why were the swastikas only at the cemetery, only at her family’s house?
She would not ask anyone. Not even her close girlfriends. Nor would anyone speak to her about the swastikas, if they knew.
In English class, God damn! Mrs. Krause who was always trying to make her seventh grade students like her had this idea, they would read aloud a short story about Hallowe’en and ghosts: a shortened version of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by some old dead author named Washington Irving. It was like Mrs. Krause, whose gums sparkled when she smiled, to make them read some old-fashioned prose nobody could follow; damn big words nobody could pronounce let alone comprehend. (Rebecca wondered if Mrs. Krause comprehended them.) Row after row, student after student stumbled through a few paragraphs of dense, slow-moving “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”; they were faltering and sullen, especially the boys who read so poorly that the exasperated teacher finally interrupted to ask Rebecca to read. “And the rest of the class, sit quietly and listen.”
Rebecca’s face burned. She squirmed in her seat, in misery.
Wanting to tell Mrs. Krause she had a sore throat, she couldn’t read. Oh, she couldn’t!
Everybody staring at her. Even her friends, the girls she believed to be her friends, staring in resentment.
“Rebecca? You will begin.”
What a nightmare! For Rebecca, who was one of the better students, was always self-conscious when any teacher singled her out. And the story was so slow, so tortuous, its sentences lengthy, words like snarls-apparition-cognomen-enraptured-superstitious-supernumerary. When Rebecca mispronounced a word, and Mrs. Krause prissily corrected her, the other students laughed. When Rebecca pronounced such silly names as “Ichabod Crane”-“Brom Bones”-“Baltus Van Tassel”-“Hans Van Ripper”-they laughed. Of the thirty students in the classroom perhaps five or six were trying to make sense of the story, listening quietly; the others were restless, mirthful. The boy who sat behind Rebecca jiggled her desk, that was attached to his. A wad of something struck her between the shoulder blades. Gravedigger! Jew-gravedigger!
“Rebecca? Please continue.”
She’d stopped, and lost her place. Mrs. Krause was annoyed, and beginning to be disappointed.
What was a Jew, Rebecca knew not to ask. Her father had forbidden them to ask.
She couldn’t remember why. It had something to do with Gus.
I am not Rebecca thought. I am not that.
In a haze of embarrassment and misery she stumbled through the story. Seeing again the vandalized cemetery of that morning, the smashed pumpkins and the noisy wide-winged crows flapping up in alarm as Herschel clapped his hands and shouted at them. She saw the ugly marks that had so frightened her father.
Felt his fingers closing on her upper arm. She knew the bruises had formed, she hadn’t yet wanted to see.
It had been nice of her brothers to protest, when Pa grabbed her like that. Indoors, when their father was mean to her, or made a threatening gesture, it was likely to be Ma who would mutter or make a little warning cry, not words exactly, for Anna Schwart and her husband rarely spoke to each other in the presence of their children, but a sound, an uplifted hand, a gesture to dissuade him.
A gesture to signify I see you, I am watching.
A gesture to signify I will protect her, my daughter.
How she hated stupid old ugly old Ichabod Crane who reminded her of Jacob Schwart! She liked it that handsome dashing Brom Bones threw the pumpkin-head at Ichabod, and scared him out of Sleepy Hollow forever. Maybe Ichabod even drowned in the brook…That would serve him right, Rebecca thought, for being so pompous and freaky.
By the time she finished reading “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Rebecca was dazed and exhausted as if she’d been crawling on her hands and knees for hours. She hated Mrs. Krause, never would she smile at Mrs. Krause again. Never would she look forward to coming to school again. Her voice was hoarse and fading as the very voice of Ichabod Crane’s ghost-“”at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.“”
“We are not Nazis! Do you think that we are Nazis? We are not. We came to this country twelve years ago. The war is over. The Germans are defeated. We have nothing to do with Nazis. We are Americans like you.”
It would be told and retold and laughed over in Milburn how frenzied Jacob Schwart was on that Hallowe’en morning. How, limping badly, he’d hiked up the road to the Esso station where he made telephone calls to the Chautauqua County sheriff’s office and to the Milburn Township Office reporting the Devil’s Night damage at the cemetery, and insisting that “authorities” come to investigate.
Jacob Schwart then hiked back home where he ignored his wife’s pleas to come inside the house, instead he waited at the entrance gates, pacing in the road in a lightly falling freezing rain, until at last, around noon, two Chautauqua County deputies arrived in a police cruiser. These were men who knew Jacob Schwart, or knew of him; their manner with him was familiar, bemused. “Mr. Schwarzz, what seems to be your trouble?”
“You can see! If you are not blind, you can see!”
Not only had Jacob Schwart’s truck tires been slashed, damage had been done to the truck’s motor. He was desperate, he would need a replacement immediately! The truck was owned by the Township, not by him, the Township must replace it immediately! He had not the money to buy a vehicle himself.
The truck was the Township’s responsibility, the deputies told him. The sheriff’s office had nothing to do with the Township.
Jacob Schwart told them that he and his sons could clean up most of the damage in the cemetery, but how to remove tar! How to remove tar! “The criminals who have done this, they are the ones to remove it. They must be arrested, and made to remove it. You will find them, eh? You will arrest them? ”Destruction of property‘-eh? It is a serious crime, yes?“
The deputies listened to Jacob Schwart with neutral expressions. They were polite, but clearly not very interested in his complaints. They made a show of examining the damage, including the swastika marks, saying only that it was just Hallowe’en, just kids acting up, nothing personal.
“See, Mr. Schwarzz, cem’teries are always targets on Devil’s Night. Everywhere in the Valley. Damn kids. Getting worse. Lucky they don’t set fires like some places. Nothing personal, Mr. Schwarzz. Nothing against you and your family.”
The elder deputy spoke in a flat, nasal drawl, taking desultory notes with a pencil stub. His partner, prodding at one of the broken gravestones with his boot, smirked and suppressed a yawn.
Through the blood in his eyes Jacob Schwart saw suddenly how they mocked him.
He saw, like the sun breaking through clouds, and his battered hands shook with the yearning to grip a poker, a shovel, a hoe.
He had no weapon. The deputies carried pistols, holstered, on their hips. They were cunning coarse-faced peasants. They were storm trooper Nazi brutes. They were of the very stock that had saluted Hitler, had marched and wished to die for Hitler. He would buy a twelve-gauge double-barreled shotgun to protect himself against them. But he had not the shotgun yet. Only his bare, battered hands, which were useless against brutes with guns.
It would be reported everywhere in Milburn how Jacob Schwart began to rave, excitedly. His ridiculous accent so strong, he was practically indecipherable.
“You are related to these ”kids,“ eh? You are knowing them, eh?”
For suddenly it was clear, why the deputies had driven out here. Not to help him but to laugh at a man’s misery. To mock a man before his family.
“Yes. You are all related here. This hellhole, you protect one another. You will give one like me no help. You will make no arrest of the criminals. In other years, you have not arrested them. This is the worst of it, and you will not arrest them. I am an American citizen yet you scorn my family and me like animals. ”Life unworthy life‘-eh? You are thinking, seeing Jacob Schwart? Goebbels you admired, eh? Yet Goebbels was a cripple too. Goebbels killed his family and himself, yes? So why you do admire the Nazi? Go away then, get out of here and to hell, damn your Nazi souls to hell, I am in not need of you.“
In his vehemence Jacob Schwart misspoke. His sons, listening unseen to his ravings from one of the sheds, winced in shame.
What an outburst! Like some kind of hopped-up dwarf, gesturing and spitting and you couldn’t understand half of what he said. The deputies would joke afterward it was damned lucky they were armed, that poor bastard Schwarzz looking like he was some kind of smashed Hallowe’en pumpkin himself.
One-quarter Seneca blood.
Somehow he’d acquired that reputation. In the Chautauqua Valley among those who knew Herschel Schwart without knowing his family.
He’d quit school at sixteen. He’d been suspended from Milburn High for fighting and during the two-week suspension he had turned sixteen and so he’d quit. God damn he’d been relieved! Kept behind in ninth grade, biggest kid in his class and made to feel shamed and murderous. Immediately he got a job at the Milburn lumber mill. Friends of his worked there, none of them had graduated from high school and they made good wages.
He still lived at home. He still helped the old man in the cemetery, sometimes. He felt sorry for Jacob Schwart. Each time he quarreled with the old man he made plans to move out, but by the age of twenty-one in October 1948 he had not yet moved out. It was inertia binding him to the stone cottage. It was his mother binding him. Her meals he devoured always hungrily, her tending to him in silence and without reproach. He would not have said I love her, I could not leave her with him.
He would not have said My sister, too. I could not leave her with the two of them.
His brother Gus, he knew could take care of himself. Gus was all right. Gus, too, had quit school on his sixteenth birthday, at their father’s urging, to help in the damn cemetery like a common laborer, full-time. But Herschel was too smart for that.
How, the eldest son of German-born immigrants, he had acquired a local reputation as part-Seneca, Herschel himself could not have said. Certainly he had not made such a claim. Neither did he deny it. His straggly dark hair that was lank and without lustre, his eyes too that were glassy-dark and without lustre, his quick temper and eccentric manner of speech suggested an exotic background of some kind, perhaps unknowable. A shrewder young man would have smiled to think Better Seneca than Kraut.
By the age of eighteen he bore an angular horsey face scarred like filigree about the mouth, eyes, and ears from bare-knuckled fights. At the age of twenty he’d been wounded by another young man wielding a broken beer bottle, twelve clumsily executed stitches across Herschel’s forehead. (Reticent, stubborn, Herschel had not told the sheriff’s deputies who had wounded him. He had revenged himself upon the young man, in time.) His teeth had been rotting in his head all his life. He was missing several teeth back and front. When he grinned, his mouth seemed to be winking. His nose had been broken and flattened at the bridge. Though he frightened most Milburn girls he was an attractive figure to certain older divorced or separated women who appreciated what was special about Herschel Schwart. They liked his face. They liked his good-natured if explosive and unpredictable manner. His loud braying laugh, his nerved-up sinewy body that gave off heat like a horse. His ropey penis that remained a marvel even when its bearer was staggering drunk, or comatose. These were women who drew their fingertips in fascination over his skin-chest, back, sides, belly, thighs, legs-that was coarse as leather, covered in bristling hairs and dimpled with moles and pimples like shot.
These were women of coarse affable appetites who teased their young lover inquiring which part of him was Seneca?
It was no secret, Herschel Schwart had a police record in Chautauqua County. More than once he’d been taken into custody by law enforcement officers. Always he’d been in the company of other young men at the time of the arrests, and always he’d been drinking. He was not perceived by county officers as dangerous in himself and he had never been kept in jail more than three nights in succession. He was a brawler, his crimes were public and boisterous, he lacked the subtlety of slyness or premeditation. Not cruel, not malicious or woman-hating; not one to break into houses, to steal or rob. In fact Herschel was careless with money, likely to be generous when he drank. In this he was admired, and perceived to be utterly different from his old man Jacob Schwart the gravedigger who it was said would jew you out of your last penny if he could.
And yet the tale would be told through Milburn for years how, on that Hallowe’en night, the night following the vandalism in the Milburn cemetery, several young men were surprised and attacked by Herschel Schwart who acted alone. The first of these, Hank Diggles, dragged out of his pickup truck in the dimly lighted parking lot of the Mott Street Tavern, could not claim to have seen Herschel Schwart but only to have felt him and smelled him, before he was beaten by his assailant’s fists into unconsciousness. There were no witnesses to the Diggles beating, nor to the even bloodier beating of Ernie LaMont in the vestibule of his apartment building just off Main Street, about twenty minutes after the Diggles beating. But there were eyewitnesses to the attack on Jeb Meunzer outside the Meunzers’ house on the Post Road: at about midnight Herschel showed up on the front porch, long after the last of the trick-or-treaters in their Hallowe’en costumes had gone home, he’d pounded on the door and demanded to see Jeb, and when Jeb appeared Herschel immediately grabbed him and dragged him outside, threw him onto the ground and began beating and kicking him, with no more explanation than Who’s a Nazi? Fucker who’s a fuckin Nazi? Jeb’s mother and a twelve-year-old sister saw the beating from the porch, and cried out for Herschel to stop. They knew Herschel of course, he’d gone to school with Jeb and intermittently the two boys had been friends, though they were not friends at this time. Mrs. Meunzer and Jeb’s sister would describe how “crazed” Herschel was, terrifying them by stabbing at Jeb with what appeared to be a fishing knife and all the while cursing Who’s a Nazi now? Fucker who’s a fuckin Nazi now? Though Jeb was Herschel’s size and had a reputation for brawling, he appeared to be overcome by Herschel, unable to defend himself. He, too, was terrified and begged his assailant not to kill him as with both knees Herschel pinned him to the ground and, with the knife, crudely carved into his forehead this mark-
that would scar Jeb Meunzer for the remainder of his life.
It would be told how Herschel Schwart then wiped the bloody knife calmly on his victim’s trousers, rose from him and waved insolently at the stunned, staring Mrs. Meunzer and her daughter, and turned to run into the darkness. It would be said that, at a bend in the Post Road, a car or pickup truck was idling, with its headlights off; and that Herschel climbed into this vehicle and drove away, or was driven away by an accomplice, to vanish from the Chautauqua Valley forever.