In the end she would not need to run away from home. It was her home that would expel her. Always she would recall that irony: her punishment at last.
May 11, 1949. A weekday. She’d stayed away after school for as long as she’d dared. In dread of returning home as if sensing beforehand what awaited.
She called for her mother. Her voice rose in childish terror. She was panicked stumbling to the front door that was partly open…The crude wooden door he’d painted over after the Hallowe’en vandalism in thick furious swaths of dark green paint to obscure the markings beneath that could not be obscured. “Ma…? It’s me.” Beyond a corner of the house as if in mockery of her alarm was a vision of laundry on the clothesline, frayed towels and a sheet stirring in the wind and so it was logical for Rebecca who believed in magical thinking to tell herself If Ma has hung out wash today…
…if today, laundry on the line, Ma’s washday…
Still she was short of breath. She’d been running. From the Quarry Road, she’d been running. It was hours after school had ended for the day. It was near six o’clock, and still the sun was prominent in the sky. Her heart was pounding in her chest like a deranged bell. As an animal smells fear, injured flesh, spilled blood she knew instinctively that something had happened.
At the edge of her blurred vision, in the interior of the cemetery, some distance away a car or cars were parked on the graveled lane and so she’d thought possibly there had been a funeral, and something had gone wrong, and Jacob Schwart had been blamed through no fault of his. Even as she was plunging toward the front door of the house. Even as she was hearing raised voices. With childish obstinacy not wishing to hear a woman crying, “Don’t go in there!-stop her!”
She was thinking of her mother Anna. Her mother trapped in that house.
For how could Rebecca not enter, knowing that her mother was inside, trapped.
Ask God why: why such things are allowed. Not me.
In that spring, that season of desultory and defiant wandering. Like a stray dog she wandered. Reluctant to return to the stone house in the cemetery which she would one day recall having been built into the side of a massive hill like a cellar or a sepulchre though in fact it was neither, only just a weatherworn stone-and-stucco dwelling with few windows, and those windows small, and square, and coated on the outside with a near-opaque winter grime.
Hating to return to the house though she knew her mother was waiting for her. Hating to return since Herschel had left, since Gus had left hitching a ride with a trucker bound for somewhere west. Both her brothers had left without a word, not a word of affection or regret or explanation or even farewell for their sister who’d loved them. Now in fury thinking I hate them, both of them. Fuckers!
This angry language she was beginning to savor. At first under her breath, and then aloud. A pulse beat hard and hot in her throat in the angry joy of hating her brothers who’d abandoned her and their mother to the madman Jacob Schwart.
She knew: her father was mad. Yet not raving-mad, not helpless-mad, so that someone in authority might come to help them.
Yet: they know, but they don’t care. Even that he has bought a shotgun, they don’t care. For why should they think of us, who are but jokes to them.
One day soon, Rebecca would run away, too. She didn’t require Katy Greb to take her in. Didn’t require anyone to take her in or feel sorry for her. Fuckers they were all of them, she turned from them in scorn.
After the spring thaw it became increasingly difficult for Rebecca to stay in school for a full day. More and more she found herself abruptly walking out. Scarcely knowing what she did only that she could not bear the stifling classrooms, the cafeteria that smelled of milk and scorched and greasy food, the corridors in which her classmates passed jostling one another like brainless, blind animals rushing through a chute. She walked out a rear exit not caring who might be watching and would report her. If an adult voice called after her stern and admonishing-Rebecca! Rebecca Schwart where are you going!-she didn’t trouble even to glance back but broke into a run.
Her grades were mostly C’s and D’s now. Even in English, that had been her best subject. Her teachers had grown wary of her as you’d be wary of a cornered rat.
Like her brothers, Rebecca Schwart was becoming. This girl who’d once been so promising…
Run, run! Through the weedy vacant lot adjacent to the school, along a street of brownstone row houses and small shops, into an alley, and so to an open field and the Buffalo & Chautauqua railroad embankment which she would follow downtown to Canal Street. The Canal Street bridge, off South Main, was so wide that parking was allowed on it. Where the taverns were. A block away on its peak of a hill was the General Washington Hotel. Several streets including South Main converged here at the bridge. In Milburn, all hills sloped down to the Erie Barge Canal and the canal itself had been out through bedrock, into the interior of the earth. At the bridge idle men leaned on the railings thirty feet above the rushing water, smoking, sometimes sipping from bottles hidden inside paper bags. This was a slipping-down place, a place inclined to muteness, like a cemetery where things came to rest.
Why Rebecca was drawn here, she could not have said. She kept her distance from strangers.
Some of the men were war veterans. There was a man of about Jacob Schwart’s age on crutches, with a melted-away face. Another wore thick glasses with one of the lenses blacked out, so you knew he was missing an eye. Others had faces that were not-old and yet deeply lined, ravaged. There were tremulous hands, stiffened necks and legs. An obese man with a stump-knee sometimes sprawled on a concrete ledge in good weather, sunning himself like a reptile, repulsive and yet fascinating to observe. His hair was gray-grizzled and thin as Jacob Schwart’s hair and if Rebecca dared to draw close she could hear the man’s hoarse, moist breathing that was like her father’s breathing when he was agitated. Once, she saw that the reptile-man had wakened from his slumber and was observing her, with a sly little smile, through quivering eyelids. She wanted to turn quickly away, but could not. She believed that, if she ran, the reptile-man would become angry and call after her and everyone would see.
There were no more than twelve feet separating them. Rebecca could not comprehend how she’d dared to come so close.
“No school today, girlie? Eh? ”Sa holiday, eh?“
He was teasing, though with an air of threat. As if he might report her for truancy.
Rebecca said nothing. She was leaning against the bridge railing, staring down at the water far below. In the countryside, the canal was flat and placid-seeming; here at the forty-foot lock, the current was swift and perilous, rushing over the lock in ceaseless agitation, churning, frothy, making a noise like wildfire. Almost, you could not hear the sound of traffic on the bridge. You could not hear the metallic chiming of the hour from the bell tower at the First Bank of Chautauqua. You could not hear another’s voice unless he spoke loudly, provocatively.
“I’m talkin to you, girlie. ”Sa holiday is it?“
Still Rebecca did not reply. Nor did she turn away. In the corner of her eye she saw him, sprawled in the sun, panting. He chuckled and rubbed his hands over his groin that looked fattish, like a goiter.
“I see you, girlie! And you see me.”
Run, run! That spring of 1949.
Always Milburn had been an old country town, you could see where post-war newness was taking hold. The gaunt red-brick facades of Main Street were being replaced by sleek modern buildings with plate glass windows. In some of the newer buildings were revolving doors, elevators. The old Milburn post office, cabin-sized, would be replaced by a beige-brick post office that shared its quarters with the YM-YWCA. Grovers Feed Mill, Midtown Lumber, Jos. Miller Dry Goods were being crowded out by Montgomery Ward, Woolworth’s, Norban’s, a new A & P with its own asphalt parking lot. (Jos. Miller Dry Goods had been the store to which Rebecca had come with her mother, to select material for the curtains Anna Schwart sewed in preparation for the Morgensterns’ visit nearly eight years before. Rebecca’s father had driven them into town in the caretaker’s pickup truck. It had been a rare outing for Anna Schwart, and her last. It had been the only time that Rebecca had been brought into town with her mother and she would afterward recall that trip and the excitement of that trip with faint disbelief even as, staring at the site of the old store, replaced now by another, she was having difficulty recalling it.)
Only just recently, Adams Bros. Haberdashery had been replaced by Thom McAn Shoes. An impressive new bank had been built kitty-corner from the First Bank of Chautauqua, calling itself New Milburn Savings & Loan. The General Washington Hotel had begun expansion and renovation. There was a newly refurbished Capitol Theater with its splendid marquee that gleamed and glittered by night. A five-storey office building (doctors, dentists, lawyers) was erected at Main and Seneca streets, the first of its kind in Milburn.
(To this building Jacob Schwart had allegedly come, in the spring of 1949. It would be told of how he’d entered a lawyer’s office on the ground floor without an appointment and insisted upon “presenting his case” to the astonished young lawyer; Mr. Schwart had been rambling, incoherent, alternately incensed and resigned, claiming that he had been cheated for twelve years of his “due merit” by the Milburn Township which refused to pay him decent wages and had rejected others of his requests.)
On South Main Street, the taverns were little changed. Like the pool hall, the bowling alleys, Reddings Smoke Shop. At the Army-Navy Discount on Erie Street, a tunnel-like store with oppressively bright lighting and crowded shelves and counters, you could buy camouflage jackets and trousers, long woollen underwear, soldiers’ infantry boots and sailors’ caps, cowhide ammunition pouches marketed as purses for high school girls.
When she’d been friends with Katy Greb, Rebecca had often come into the Army-Navy store with Katy, for things were always “on sale” here. The girls drifted also into Woolworth’s, Norban’s, Montgomery Ward. Rarely to buy, mostly to look. Without Katy, Rebecca no longer dared to enter these stores. She knew how the salesclerks’ eyes would shift upon her, in suspicion and dislike. For she had an Indian look to her. (There was a Seneca reservation north of Chautauqua Falls.) Yet she was drawn to gaze into the display windows. So much! So many things! And a girl’s wan, ghostly reflection super-imposed upon them, magically.
The loneliness of the solitary life. Consoling herself she was invisible, no one cared enough to see her.
Only once, Rebecca happened to see her father in Milburn. Downtown, as he was crossing a side street en route to the First Bank of Chautauqua.
Out of nowhere Jacob Schwart had seemed to emerge, exuding a strange dark radiance. A troll-man, broken-backed and limping, in soiled work clothes and a cloth cap that looked as if they’d been hacked out of a substance harsher than mere cloth; making his way along the sidewalk with no apparent awareness of how others, glancing at him in curiosity and alarm, stepped out of his way.
Rebecca shrank back, stepping into an alley. Oh, she knew! She must not let Pa see her.
Herschel had warned Don’t let the old bastid see you, anywhere outside the house. ‘Cause if he does he flies off the handle like some nut. Says you’re followin him, spyin on him to tell Ma what he’s doin, crazy shit like that.
This was in April 1949. At the time Jacob Schwart closed out his savings account and bought the twelve-gauge double-barreled shotgun and the box of shells.
That day, May 11. Could not bear going to school and instead she wandered along the railway embankment, and so to the canal towpath. An acrid odor blew from the direction of the dump, she avoided it by crossing the canal at the Drumm Road bridge. There, beneath the bridge, was one of Rebecca’s hiding places.
Hate hate hate them both of them. Wish they were dead.
Both of them. And then I would…
But what would she do? Run away as her brothers had done? Where?
Such thoughts came to her, mutinous and exciting, beneath the Drumm Road bridge where she crouched amid boulders and rocks, old rusted pipes, broken concrete, metal rods protruding from the shallow water near shore. This was debris from the bridge’s construction twenty years before.
She was thirteen now. Her birthday had gone unremarked in the stone house in the cemetery, as so much else there went unremarked.
She liked being thirteen. She wanted to be older, as her brothers were older. She was impatient with remaining a child, trapped in that house. She hadn’t yet begun to bleed, to have “periods”-“cramps”-as Katy and other girls did each month. She knew it must happen to her soon and what she dreaded most about it was having to tell Ma. For Ma would have to know, and Ma would be deeply embarrassed and even resentful, having to know.
Rebecca had grown apart from Anna Schwart, since Herschel’s disappearance. She believed that her mother no longer listened to music on the radio, for Pa claimed that the radio was broken. Rebecca had not listened with her mother in so long, she would come to wonder if she’d ever listened.
Piano music. Beethoven. But what had been the name of the sonata-a name like “Passionata”?
She must go home, soon. It was beginning to be late afternoon, Ma was awaiting her. Always there were household tasks but predominantly Anna Schwart wanted her daughter home. Not to speak with her and certainly not to touch her, scarcely even to look at her. But to know that Rebecca was home, and safe.
On the underside of the plank bridge were ravishing faces! Ghost-faces reflected upward from the rippling water below. Rebecca stared at these faces that were often those of her lost cousins Freyda, Elzbieta, Joel. And more recently the faces of Herschel and Gus. Dreamily she observed them, and wondered if they could see her.
She’d known why her brothers had disappeared, but she had not known why her cousins and their parents had been sent back to the old world. To die there, Pa had said. Like animals.
Why? Ask God why.
Ask that hypocrite F.D.R. why!
Rebecca recalled her dolls Maggie and Minnie. One of the dolls had been Freyda’s doll. The memory was so vivid, Maggie cuddled in Freyda’s arms, almost Rebecca believed it must have been so.
Both Maggie and Minnie had disappeared a long time ago. Very likely, Ma had disposed of them. Ma had a way of disposing of things when it was time. She had no other need to explain herself, nor would Rebecca have wished to ask.
Minnie, the sad ugly bald rubber doll, had been Rebecca’s doll. Minnie was so debased, you could not injure her further. There was a comfort in that! Hairless as a wizened baby. A corpse-baby. (In the cemetery, there were corpse-babies buried. Of course Rebecca had not seen any of these but she knew there were baby-sized coffins, in baby-sized plots. Often these dead had no names except Baby.) Rebecca winced to think she’d ever been so childish, to play with dolls. Katy’s retarded sister, a child with fat cheeks and glassy staring eyes, was always hugging an old bald doll in a way pathetic and repulsive to see. Katy said with a shrug, she thinks it’s real.
Except for the ghost-faces, the underside of the Drumm Road bridge was ugly. There were rusted girders and big screws and massive spiderwebs. That look of the underside of things, like skeletons you are not meant to see.
On days of bright sunshine, like this day, the shadows beneath the bridge were sharp and cutting.
Often it was said of the Erie Barge Canal it’s deeper than it appears. Sometimes, in the heat of summer, the canal looks as if you could walk on its surface opaque as lead.
My good girl who is all I have, I must trust you.
And so, how could Rebecca run away from home? She could not.
Now that Herschel and Gus were gone, she was Anna Schwart’s only child remaining.
A girl, you must not wander alone. You don’t want something to happen to you.
“God damn I do. I do want something to happen to me. I do.”
How Anna would stare at her, astonished and hurt.
A farmer’s flatbed truck was approaching the bridge. Rebecca clamped her arms over her head, stiffening. There came a clattering noise, the bridge shuddered and vibrated not ten feet above Rebecca’s head. Bits of grit and dust sifted downward.
On her way home, on Quarry Road, she heard gunfire.
Hunters. Often there were hunters, in the scrubby pine woods along Quarry Road.
Never would Rebecca know. But Rebecca would imagine.
How to the Milburn Township Cemetery in the late afternoon of May 11, 1949 there had come two brothers, Elroy and Willis Simcoe, with their sixty-six-year-old aunt. They had come to visit their parents’ grave site, that was marked with a heavy, handsome granite stone engraved with the words THY KINGDOM COME THY WILL BE DONE. Elroy Simcoe who was an insurance agent in Milburn and a longtime member of the Township board had lived in Milburn all his life, Willis had moved to the small city of Strykersville forty miles to the west. The Simcoe brothers were well known in the area. They were middle-aged, paunchy, and nattily dressed. They wore sport coats and white cotton shirts open at the throat. Elroy had driven his brother and aunt to the cemetery in a new-model gray Oldsmobile shaped like a box car. As soon as they passed through the cemetery gate they began to notice that the grounds were not so fastidiously kept as one might wish. A profusion of dandelions was in bloom, tall thistles had sprung up around the gravestones. An erratic swath had been mowed through grass with a look of drunken abandon or contempt and, most jarring to the eye, there were piles of soil heaped beside the newer graves like refuse that should have been carted away.
A fallen tree limb lay slantwise across the graveled drive. In a very bad mood, Willis Simcoe climbed out of the Oldsmobile to drag the limb aside.
As Elroy drove on, he and his brother noticed the cemetery caretaker working with a small scythe, not very energetically, about fifty feet from the graveled drive. Elroy did not slow the Oldsmobile, there was no exchange of words at this point. The workman, whose name was known to Elroy Simcoe as “Schwart,” did not so much as glance up as the Simcoes passed by, his back to them.
Of course he was aware. Jacob Schwart was aware. Of all visitors to the cemetery, Jacob Schwart was keenly aware.
At the elder Simcoe’s grave, the brothers and their elderly aunt were shocked to see untrimmed grasses and dandelions. Pots of hyacinth and geraniums that had been lovingly placed about the grave on Easter Sunday, not long before, now lay on their sides, broken and dessicated.
Elroy Simcoe, a short-tempered man, cupped his hands to his mouth to call over to the caretaker, “You, Schwart!” Elroy meant to chew him out as Elroy would later testify. But the caretaker, his back still turned, refused to so much as glance around. Elroy called, in a louder voice, “Mr. Schwart! I’m talking to you, sir!” His sarcasm seemed to be lost on the caretaker, who continued to ignore him.
Though laying down the scythe in the grass, for the last time. Retreating without haste, or a backward glance. And limping Schwart went to a storage shed adjacent to the caretaker’s stone house and disappeared inside it and shortly afterward reappeared now limping purposefully in the direction of the Simcoes in the interior of the cemetery and now-so unexpectedly!-pushing a wheelbarrow with a strip of canvas tossed over its contents, bump-bump-bump through the grass! And no turning back now! Knowing what must be done. Now his enemies had begun their attack, no longer surreptitiously but openly. As Jacob Schwart approached the Simcoe brothers who stood watching him pushing the wheelbarrow apparently in their direction, watching the peculiar little troll-man with expressions of bemusement and irritation, there may have been harsh words exchanged. Elroy Simcoe, the surviving brother, and his elderly aunt would later testify that Jacob Schwart was the one to speak first, his face contorted with rage: “Nazi murderers! No more!” At this point both Simcoe brothers shouted at him, seeing the man was mad; and suddenly, with no warning, when Schwart had pushed the wheelbarrow to within twelve feet of Willis Simcoe, he pulled the canvas away and lifted a shotgun that looked massive in his diminutive hands, aimed it at Willis and in virtually the same moment pulled the trigger.
The stricken man would die of a gaping wound in the chest. His right forearm, lifted in a futile attempt to protect his torso, would be blasted away, white bones protruding through mangled flesh.
Now you see, eh! Now! The pogrom is done.
She was calling, “Ma? Ma-” childish and pleading.
Somehow she’d entered the stone house. Knowing perhaps she should not, there was danger here. A woman, a stranger, had called at her, to warn her. Rebecca had not listened, and Rebecca had not clearly seen the wounded man lying on the ground, in the cemetery.
She had not! She would claim she had not, afterward.
What she did remember was: laundry flapping on the clothesline.
Her belated realization, Ma would be mad as hell at her. For Rebecca should have helped with the laundry as always.
Yet: It can’t happen, today is washday.
In the kitchen something blocked her way, and this was a wrong thing: a chair, sprawled on its back. Rebecca collided with the chair like a blind girl, wincing with pain.
Calling for her mother but her voice came so faint, Anna Schwart could not have heard had Anna Schwart been capable of hearing.
Then she called for her father-“Pa? Pa?”-reasoning even in this moment of terror He would want me to acknowledge him, to respect him.
She was in the kitchen of the old stone house, and hearing the sound of struggle in one of the back rooms. Her parents’ bedroom?
She was panting, covered in a film of cold sweat. Her heart was beating erratically as a wounded bird beating its wings. All that she knew, she was forgetting. Laundry? Washday? She was forgetting. Already she’d forgotten the unknown woman crying Don’t go in there!-stop her! She’d forgotten having heard gunshots; she could not have said how many shots she’d heard. And so she would not have thought He has reloaded. He is prepared. For it is an important distinction in such matters: if a man acts impulsively, or with premeditation.
She heard them. The floorboards vibrated with their struggle. Her father’s excited, eager voice and her mother’s short breathless cries, that sound that Rebecca would later realize was Anna Schwart pleading for her life, as Anna Schwart had never pleaded before in Rebecca’s hearing. Her mother’s fleshy indifference, her stubborn composure were gone, vanished as if they had never been; her air of stoic calm, that had seemed to welcome humiliation, hurt, even grief, had vanished. A woman pleading for her life and there was Jacob Schwart interrupting to say, as if gloating, “Anna! No! They are coming now, Anna. It is time.”
Since Rebecca had started to run for home, out on the Quarry Road, there’d been a faint roaring in her ears. A sound as of water rushing over the forty-foot lock in the canal at Milburn. And now there came a deafening noise, an explosion so close by, Rebecca would think, panicked, that she’d been hit herself.
She was in the hall outside the bedroom. The door was ajar. She might have turned and run. She might have escaped. She was not behaving with the panicked instinct of an animal bent upon survival. Instead she cried, “Ma! Oh, Ma!” another time and pushed into the bedroom, that cramped dim-lit room at the rear of the house in which Anna and Jacob Schwart had slept in the same bed for more than a decade and into which the Schwart children had rarely ventured. She nearly collided with her father who was panting and moaning, and who may have been muttering to himself, her father gripping the unwieldy shotgun in both his hands, the barrels pointing upward. In this room there was a powerful stink of gunsmoke. In the pallid light from a grimy window Jacob Schwart’s face was a hot boiled-tomato hue and his eyes glittered like kerosene. And he was smiling.
“To spare her, eh? They leave no choice…”
On the floor by the bed was a shape, a sprawled motionless shape that might have been a body but Rebecca could not see the head, where the head had been, or possibly there was a head, or part of a head, yes but it lay in darkness beyond the foot of the bed; though the darkness was glistening, the darkness was wet, and spreading like spilled paint. Rebecca was not capable of thinking and yet the thought came to her lightly and whimsically blown as milkweed seed It is almost over, it will stop then. I can take down the laundry myself.
Her father Jacob Schwart was speaking to her. His face and the front of his work clothes were splattered with the dark liquid. He may have been trying to block her vision of what lay on the floor even as, smiling harder, as a father smiles at a recalcitrant child to distract her attention from something that must be done for the child’s own good, he was trying, in that tight space, to maneuver the gun barrels around, to take aim at her. Yet Pa seemed not to wish to touch her, to jostle her bodily. Not for a long time had Pa touched his daughter. Instead he backed away. But the edge of the bed prevented him from moving far. He was saying, “You-you are born here. They will not hurt you.” He had changed his mind about her, then. He was aiming the barrels at his own head, clumsily at his jaws out-thrust like a turtle’s. For there was a second shell remaining to be discharged. He was sweating and panting as if he’d been running uphill. He set his jaws tight, he clenched his stained teeth. The last look Jacob Schwart would give his daughter was one of indignation, reproach, as he fumbled to pull the trigger.
Again the blast was deafening. The windowpanes behind Jacob Schwart would be shattered. In that instant father and daughter were one, obliterated.